Roomba Robot

January 16, 2004

in Accelerating Innovation

I have a confession to make. I bought my wife a robot for Christmas and it has changed our life. This is the typical story about early adoption, why one does it and the insights it brings. This is a post on ROOMBA, a vacuum that emerged as a venture out of MIT Artificial Intelligence Labs. The company is iRobot.

Why you should pay attention Roomba. More to the point you should just buy one! (If you have hardwood floors, no tassels on rugs and no thick carpets)

  • Roomba Love
  • Disruptive engineering – Innovators dilemma
  • Design tradeoffs and likely future direction
  • Robotics in general
  • Cleaning Robots for the home
  • Buying behavior and channel implications

    I tracked robots and like many have seen Aibo Sony’s robot. See this ZDnet articleon why they are nearly here. I’d never seen a Roomba until I went to purchase one. I’m not sure where I really got the idea. It was only afterwards that I learned from the Roomba site that a “permission slip” was available. My wife has an interest in cleaning that is more work related than elbow grease. Roomba at around $250 for the Elite version was something I just thought we had to experiment with. So far I might add I’m the one who has done most of the learning and the home is cleaner than it has ever been.

    Roomba Love
    Is the appreciation for a very fine cleaning pet. Roomba (many have named them see these links) requires juice daily and then feeds on all the dust and dog hair. It loves hardwood floors which are the majority in our house. It daily runs it little heart out usually while we are out and then we come home to find it with a very full belly. It cleans about half of the house daily, we just let it go until it runs out of juice. Check out the reviews on Amazon. I’m in the 4+ star camp. Checking for earlier models it clearly it doesn’t work for everyone. Use your judgement.

    Disruptive Engineering:
    The smart vacuum like the intelligent lawnmower (see robomower) has been round for some time as an idea and working prototypes. Most of the major manufacturers have one in production or at the prototype stage. The prices I’ve seen for them range from $1500 to $6000. See Electrolux Tribolite. This report from the Tapei Times who asks whether Taiwan can make Robo-Maids. Want to design your own? Look to Wany Robotics. Closer to home research continues at SRI on the Centibots project. More cleaning bots. And one from Karcher too. and then check out the price… and Hitachi and Samsung.

    Although most of these are not yet commercial products, their number alone certainly reflects the expectations regarding the economic value associated with the automation of cleaning tasks.

    So how does Roomba manage to get it to market for around $200? What are some of the tradeoff they may have made. Looking at some of the prototypes suggests some of the “industry” prevailing wisdom. It must have a high suction capability (probably work on thick carpets too), it must use sonar or some intelligent system to navigate it’s way around furniture. To be automated it must be able to return to base and recharge — for they can’t figure out how to keep it going long enough with current battery technology.

    Roomba by comparison appears to “bristle” with innovation using its brushes to sweep up most dirt and a very low power vacuum to get the fine dust and additional hairs. Consequently it runs for 1.5 to 1.75 hours on a charge. All the above appear to run flat after about 40-50 minutes. Roomba’s charge is enough to clean 1000+ square feet of hardwood on a charge. Roomba didn’t design in a return to base function. Then Roomba is also smaller, and all use light weight strong plastics throughout. It’s dumb by comparison to the smart vacuum bots. However the algorithm it uses to clean the floors is very effective, and you begin to believe it may be intelligent. It still has a couple of sensors on board. It’s small height means it cleans where you often don’t. So they downsized, used real low power electrics and shoved the biggest battery they could in it and went to China to have it made.

    Design Tradeoffs?
    They also made some design tradeoff that a good vacuum manufacturer would not make. For example there are three dirt collection containment areas. That makes the daily dump a little less attractive. There is no Dyson press ‘n dump.
    The solution with the brushes is not perfect. Long dog hair really adds to the cleaning burden. Thankfully ours is a short hair lab, but our guest golden retriever over the holidays…. made almost daily cleaning of the brushes mandatory. These cleaning niggles have created a product of their own. The Roomba Personal Care Kit. The screwdriver is mandatory. That it is not kept on Roomba and required for frequent maintenance is nuts.

    Future Direction.
    The obvious desires are all there. Give me automatic dumping and cleaning, add auto recharging, then add a mopping buddy. Perhaps add a fuel cell so Roomba works even harder and longer for me. There are examples already out there with security features built in (see links above). It could be made quieter too.

    In one article I saw 200,000+ Roombas had been sold through last October. Another line focused on Roomba already being the most popular robot ever made. Inherently we know that robotics will come into the home. In fact even Lego provides a “robotics” product. So it is only a question of when and where. The technology is here and the price point is the same as a new better vacuum cleaner.

    There is some satisfaction in having a little bot working for you. Actually toiling while you are away. I’m satisfied that we may now spend five minutes a day nurturing it and a couple more moving some furniture or a room site check while it cleans 10 hours a week for me. In our household the vacuum before came out at most twice a week. Obviously we never did 10 hours of vacuuming. So while we can get round faster than the Roomba, we’re no more through. In the end five minutes a day and for the most part vacuuming has gone away. We haven’t used the vacuum in the main living areas since Christmas. On a day to day basis the house is cleaner. Plus I have the daily empty process to prove it.

    Impact on the Home:
    Forever thinking about the future, and slaving away today I believe Roomba will generate new perspective for home living and cleaning. We’ve seen the advances in home entertainment, and early smart kitchen results. So far they haven’t all come together. This little robot may just change all that. I can now see a day where I never have to clean another floor, sweep another driveway or cut another lawn. That would suit me. It also means that Roomba purchases may just compete with high demand electronics products. What do you want? A maid you can name or a Plasma TV? I’ll take the maid thank you!

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