Needing Another Hit, iRobot Teases Lawnmower Bot

We may be in the 21st century, but selling robots to consumers is still not an easy business. Take it from iRobot, a pioneer in at-home robotic helpers.

The Bedford, MA-based company (NASDAQ: IRBT) is known for its Roomba robotic vacuums, which have become so widely available in 12 years on the market that they occasionally surface as the basis of TV jokes and other pop-culture ephemera.

Roombas, however, still make up the majority of iRobot’s sales, despite a long list of companion products—robots that clean your gutters, the pool, and mop up tile floors, to name a few.

iRobot has taken to heavier marketing spending under CEO Colin Angle, which you might have noticed with a rash of TV commercials over the past couple of years. That’s apparently driving sales of the company’s products, but it’s often not fast enough for Wall Street investors.

Which brings us to the humble lawnmower. This week, iRobot’s plans to develop an autonomous grass-cutting robot surfaced in the form of an application with federal regulators for permission to use wireless beacons to guide a lawn-bot around the yard.

Robotic lawnmowers are nothing new—you can buy one from big companies like Husqvarna and Bosch, or smaller upstarts. As iRobot notes in its filing with the Federal Communications Commission, robot mowers are widely used in Europe, but U.S. versions typically rely on underground “electric fence” systems to keep them from wandering too far.

Instead, iRobot says it hopes to use wireless beacons attached to removable lawn stakes to guide its version of the robotic lawnmower. But don’t get too excited about buying one just yet: the company notes that the idea is still “in the early design phase.”

The surprise disclosure of iRobot’s lawn ambitions comes just a week after the company issued a mixed-bag earnings report, pulling its stock price down because of investor worries about iRobot’s expected earnings for the year ahead.

Teasing a new product—especially one that already has a nascent market—would seem to pair well with iRobot’s other long-term ambitions.

The company recently laid out plans to make its corporate venture investing arm a more formal, larger-scale project in an attempt to stay connected with early stage technologies that might have strategic value.

And during that latest earnings report, Angle said iRobot is hoping to lean on its investment in core technologies in a way that might make the company more than a seller of electronics.

In the next year, Angle said, iRobot’s development of its own navigation technology could “move us from a leader in the robot vacuum cleaner market to a technology company developing navigation-connected devices for the home.”

That’s a new way to think about iRobot’s place in the market. But as the lawn-bot disclosure shows, there’s more ground to cover in the core business of churning out mechanized assistants.

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