At first glance, it might seem a little underwhelming to the vacuumers of the world that the latest product from iRobot, the Roomba 980, boasts internal mapping as a key new feature. But it’s such a leap forward that CEO and cofounder Colin Angle evokes Lewis and Clark when discussing the achievement.
It’s a problem iRobot has been trying to solve for a decade, and Angle said this model is the biggest leap forward for them since the first Roomba, which was introduced in 2002. The ability to map allows the Roomba 980 to avoid more obstacles, clean a home more efficiently—think parallel lines—and recharge itself without starting the room over.
“In order to create robots that truly understand where they are and what they’re doing, we needed to solve the localization problem,” Angle said after an iRobot press event Wednesday. “We needed to be able to map. That’s why the point about Lewis and Clark was that once there were maps, the rest was easy.”
Angle said that robotics had been stuck for decades with lots of ideas and lots of promise but no maps, and that has been one of the industry’s biggest challenges. Take, for example, a sunny day. The new Roomba uses a camera to map–but that camera can be rendered useless by too much or too little light.
“You look out into the sun and you’re blind,” he said. “Well, the robot’s blind too. You turn down the lights and you have to fall back on other sensors to know where you are and where you’re going and, yet, it still has to work. Right? Practical robots can’t become useless because the sun is shining in a window.”
The solution iRobot found is to layer new sensors so the Roomba can rely on something else if, say, it’s too bright outside and the camera isn’t effective. They call this “visual simultaneous localization and mapping” (vSLAM®). And humans work much the same way, Angle said. When humans can’t see well, they fall back on such things as hearing, touch, and memory. The new Roomba can “hear” when it’s found more dirt with an acoustic sensor.
The Roomba 980, which goes on sale Thursday for $899, is iRobot’s first consumer IoT product. The company has finally added a cloud-connected app, which allows you to tell the Roomba 980 to clean your house while you’re at work or on the go. The app also lets you schedule regular cleanings.
This new Roomba costs about 10 times the price of a vacuum you’d have to push by hand (like Rosie the robot maid did on The Jetsons). Rosie has been a long-time inspiration for Angle, who says it might not have taken so long for a Roomba that could make maps to hit the market if price had not been a factor.
“No one is going to pay $50,000 to clean their floor,” Angle says. “At least not many people.”
This post has been updated with more details and quotes about the new product.