iRobot's newest Roomba wants to map your living room

The new model has a camera, maps rooms, and is WiFi connected. Should privacy hawks be concerned?
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

The new Roomba is here, iRobot announced this week.

And while the Roomba 980, which went on sale September 17, has a lot of interesting tech upgrades, they all point to one immutable fact: The consumer bot maker that started it all has changed its thinking on how best to clean a floor with a robot vacuum. Believe it or not, this constitutes high drama in the realm of robotics.

Where to begin? If you've ever seen a Roomba in action, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a curious, free-spirited explorer that eschewed straight lines and planned routes. Roombas bounce around seemingly at random, making arbitrary-looking course corrections and taking a "thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters" approach to cleaning floors -- keep at it long enough, the job will get done.

That's not entirely accurate, of course. By influencing the randomness of Roomba's movements just enough, iRobot's engineers have figured out how to give previous generations of their bot a good chance of covering an entire room without incorporating robust controls and expensive mapping technology.

iRobot calls its approach iAdapt Responsive Cleaning Technology, which is a proprietary stew of algorithms that dictate strategies like random walk-angle changing and spiral cleaning, and that add up to full coverage of an average home space. The approach is based on the philosophy, championed by iRobot co-founder (and current CEO of Rethink Robotics) Rodney Brooks, that robots can operate effectively in many situations with simple behavior controls. The upside is simplicity of design and operation.

The down side is that it takes a Roomba a lot longer to clean a space than it would a kid marching along in parallel lines. And with the rapid development of cheap sensor technology and onboard computing power, which are helping to drive the current boom in robotics, mapping has become far more feasible and affordable recently.

Some of iRobot's competitors have been selling mapping vacuum bots for years. The discontinued Electrolux Trilobite was an early entrant in this category, and the reigning king of room mapping vacuum robots is Neato Robotics, whose latest unit uses lasers to visualize the space around it and create a map to ensure that it's covering the entire floor plan of a room. Dyson also unveiled a mapping robotic vac last year.

Roomba has now joined their ranks. "Roomba 980 is the next big step as it marks iRobot's first cloud connected product with mapping capabilities for the consumer market," said iRobot CEO Colin Angle in a statement released by the company. "Leveraging the cloud and mapping technologies, robots gain a better understanding of their environment, and customers are provided with more control."

At the heart of the tech upgrade is iRobot's visual simultaneous localization and mapping (vSLAM®) technology, which got its field test in iRobot's Ava 500 telepresence bot, a unit that costs north of $69,000. The Roomba 980 utilizes a camera and various proximity sensors, fusing all the data as it methodically works through a room to create a map of the floor space. Roomba can tell in real time if it's missed any spots, comparing the map to a record of its movements.

The new bot is WiFi enabled and can be remotely operated via an app, a necessary upgrade amid the current onslaught of smart home tech. But that's raised some questions about privacy and prompted concern that Roomba's camera could be hijacked, or that its maps could fall into the wrong hands. For the sake of stretching the imagination, let's say those hands belong to a jewel thief who needs to know the exact layout of your living room in order to avoid all your poisonous darts and trip wires.

But those are (ahem) remote possibilities. Footage from Roomba's camera wouldn't be optimal for potential peepers or thieves; it's designed to detect the outlines of a room, and not the crown jewels. More important, the system doesn't send footage or room maps over the internet and doesn't store them on the cloud. All of that data is erased after ninety minutes. Every time the vacuum is deployed, it makes a new map of the room it's working on, and then it erases that data and starts again.

The new Roomba features longer run-times, automatic recharge and deployment settings, and remote operation via the app. By all accounts it's a capable, well-conceived device. But the price could be a stumbling block. The 980 is available for order now at $899, making it a pricey vacuum.

If you have kids at home who can be bought, bartered with, or sentenced to vacuuming duty, that still looks like the most cost-effective autonomous solution.

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