So far, the story of the Roomba has been one of steady progress. Ever since iRobot debuted its first robot vacuum in 2002, the company has iterated on it every few years, adding new features, more smarts, and better ways to entertain cats (if we’re being real) with each version.
But now the iconic product and its parent company are on the verge of a transition. While, yes, iRobot is announcing a new Roomba and a new Braava mopping robot, it’s also beginning to think of itself as not just a consumer robot manufacturer that sells products, but as a domestic cleaning service company whose robots are a means to an end. The product is peace of mind and your time back, not the shiny, circular machine that glides across your floors.
“iRobot is mid-pivot, from selling really cool physical robots to selling a service,” explains CEO Colin Angle. “And as we learn and as the ecosystem grows, we become deeper enmeshed. In my mind, [with our service] the home is just supposed to do the right thing — it’s supposed to maintain itself.”
The New Bots
Today’s new robots are definitely a step in that direction. The Roomba s9 levels up the robot vacuum over the previous Roomba i7 in a couple of ways: The s9 has a new PerfectEdge Technology that targets dirt in those hard-to-clean spots near walls and corners. The Roomba’s “flicking” brush, which rotates as it moves and has bristles that stick out, has been repositioned so it can hit dirt farther out than before.
The Roomba also moves in a way that ensures it hits every square inch as it goes around a corner. I saw this in action during a demo of the s9, and with a combination of turns and backward movements, the Roomba made sure to swipe every part of a corner with its brush before proceeding down the edge of the wall.
More upgrades: There’s a new 3D sensor guiding the Roomba, which should mean better navigation around all the objects and unusual features of your room (it can tell the difference between a bedskirt and an end table, for example). The new design also allows for more suction, and iRobot says the s9 has 40x the suction of the Roomba 600 Series AeroVac models. It’s also the priciest, starting at $999.
The new Braava Jet m6 robot mop ($499) is an even bigger upgrade. Whereas the previous generation was really only meant for a single bathroom or kitchen, the Braava Jet M6 is equipped with improved navigation and smart maps. That means it will get to know the floorplan of your house, mopping hardwood and tile as needed, while skipping over carpet and rugs.
Wait, there’s more! iRobot announced earlier this year that it was entering the robot lawnmower space, and it showed what the prototype mower, the Terra, would look like (although there was no demo). iRobot’s model improves upon competitors like Husqvarna’s by not requiring boundary wire, instead relying on beacons placed in a few locations in a yard. The company plans to introduce the mower bot to the German market later this year before bringing it to the USA in 2020.
The Robot Cleaners Cometh
Together, the three products are the robotic vanguard of a potential iRobot home maintenance service.
“All of these three things together are three different services that can combine into a larger ‘meta service,'” Angle says. “As we connect to other devices, you can make a more rich experience. The Roomba doesn’t just worry about picking up stuff from the ground — improving the air quality is another dimension of where we’re headed.”
For all of iRobot’s automatons, the idea is the same, and similarly tantalizing: Set it up once, and you don’t have to think about it again. In the case of the Roomba s9+, which comes with the disposal bin attached to the charging dock (and bumps the cost up to $1,299), that goes double. The bin holds 30 full loads from the Roomba’s bin, and it ensures allergens don’t get recirculated in your air (what Angle was talking about when he mentioned air quality). If you keep a relatively neat house, you’ll probably only have to touch it a couple of times a year.
It’s easy to see the company’s robot business becoming a service play. Right now, customers buy robots, one by one. Eventually, those robots get old, wear out, and lose support, whereupon the customer buys another one. But what if the customer instead subscribes to a theoretical iRobot house maintenance business, with pro support, unlimited supplies, and options to upgrade to new robots whenever they’re available?
“With the hat of speculation on, it’s something that’s being talked about,” says Angle “Would people buy vacuuming as a service if it’s delivered by robots? I think it’s a great question. The more autonomous these robots are, the more they start to feel like a service. So we’re almost earning our right to have that conversation with the consumer.”
Back to reality: iRobot isn’t announcing a new business model, just new robots. Check back in a couple of years, though. A service model brings with it several advantages, the biggest of which is the upsell. Today, even a customer sold on the Roomba might balk at spending hundreds on a robot mop or lawnmower. But if it’s just a relatively small step up on a monthly bill, a lot more of them might take the plunge.
Star Wars may have been wrong about robots in more ways than one. Domestic robots in the real world are less human and much less multi-purpose — this we know — but there’s a good chance they’re not destined to be sold piecemeal from a store or the back of a Sandcrawler. Like video streaming and cloud storage, robot cleaners may end up being just one more thing you subscribe to.