New Roomba Is Key to iRobot’s Home of the Future—and Its Business

11/12/13Follow @gthuang

The godfather of commercial robotics, Bedford, MA-based iRobot, has a brand new Roomba coming out today. What could possibly be exciting about a new robot vacuum cleaner?

You probably know the Roomba has been around for many years (since 2002). You may also know that its parent, iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT), has sold 10 million home robots (mostly Roombas). You may not care about vacuums, but maybe you will now.

“This is a pretty profound invention,” says iRobot CEO and co-founder Colin Angle.

He’s talking about the design of the latest model, the 800 series*, which has a new vacuuming mechanism and is available online for $699. Instead of traditional bristle brushes—like those found in most vacuums, including previous Roombas—the new machine uses solid but flexible rollers (compliance is the technical term) that help amplify the suction for all those tough-to-clean deep carpets and dog hairs. It also uses a more powerful vacuum than previous models. The company says it has 12 patents pending on the design.

(*As I recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator model was an 800 series. Or maybe that was the one that had rubber skin. Can anyone clear this up?)

The bottom line: 50 percent better pickup of dirt and debris, and “virtually zero maintenance,” Angle says. That means no more cleaning hairs and other gunk off the brushes—most of it gets sucked in. That’s the idea, anyway.

Even as iRobot expands into markets such as healthcare, the new Roomba is “incredibly important” to the future of the company, Angle says.

The global market size for higher-end vacuum cleaners is something like $6 billion a year. So far robots represent about 15 percent of that, Angle says. And Roombas are currently in less than 5 percent of households in the U.S., so it sounds like there’s plenty of room to expand the product line into a much bigger business.

Competitors in the crowded sector aren’t sitting still, of course. “We need to raise the game so we can even more directly take on traditional vacuum cleaners, from an efficacy and maintenance perspective,” Angle says. “The ideal robot vacuum is the vacuum you never see, the vacuum you never touch. Your home is forever clean, with freshly vacuumed floors every day.”

Asked whether he ever thought he would study the ins and outs of vacuuming so intently, Angle puts things in a broader perspective. “When we started with Roomba, we had the effect of redefining how people thought about robots,” he says. Instead of mainly being characters from Star Wars or Star Trek, he says, “now when people think about robots, Roomba counts.” As for his robotics career arc, he says, “Did I think I’d go at it from disrupting vacuum brushes? No, it’s about navigation, perception, and manipulation.”

In fact, the latest Roomba design represents what Angle calls “the first great instance of robotic manipulation.” Usually when you think of manipulation, it’s a robotic hand picking up a tool or object, say. But you can think of a smarter vacuum cleaner as a way “to be able to grab more effectively,” he says. “It’s about compliance and how we use suction more creatively.”

The bigger picture here is iRobot’s “commitment to the automated home of the future,” he says. “We need to make our robots zero-touch. We’re here to make your homes take care of themselves.”

Not surprisingly, the CEO eats his own Roomba food. Chez Angle is currently home to four Roombas—one on each floor, including the basement. (“Roomba is not going to climb stairs anytime soon,” he says.)

Once upon a time, Angle had also mentioned that a robot that could go around and put the toilet seats down would be a good invention—maybe something for another of the company’s robots to aspire to.

“That would be Scooba’s job,” he jokes, referring to iRobot’s floor-washing bot. “But that’s manipulation.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Øpi Váli

    They are still falling short on what could be done with them. If you check out any blogs that cover the Roomba you will see that consumers want to ditch a separate remote and use their phones and computers over some form of wireless communications format like WiFi or Bluetooth. With these as extentions to the programming, control, and monitoring of both the robot and the home the product would have a higher usage and marketability.

  • TexasMom2012

    I got one for Christmas and it is wonderful. No more piles of dog hair from my two black labs!