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How a robot vacuum could be the heart (and eyes) of your smart home

Robot vacuum cleaners are not a new concept, having been around now for more than 15 years, but they have become astronomically more competent since their early days of getting caught on rug fringes, running out of battery in the middle of a clean and constantly forgetting where they were.

But the next generation of disc-shaped floor-suckers could bring some of the most important upgrades yet, not only being more autonomous than ever before but also understanding exactly where they are in your home, and where you need them to be.

iRobot's latest Roombas, the i7 and i7+, were shown off at a recent event in Tokyo and will be arriving in Australia in the coming months. Their key new feature: persistent mapping of your home.

The Roomba i7 remembers how to get around your home.

As the robot travels around your house slurping up dust, it also draws a floorplan and uses a sensor to identify landmarks and objects that help it know where it is and work out where it needs to go. Unlike previous models, the i7 remembers this information for next time, meaning it will learn over time what the most efficient paths are to clean your home.

If you change the layout of your furniture, it will even adapt the existing map rather than needing to create a whole new one, and if you have a multiple storey house it simply makes multiple maps, and uses its learned landmarks to determine which floor it's on (if you don't want to buy two you will still need to carry it up the stairs.)

CEO and founder of iRobot Colin Angle says the i7 class, which is the company's 10th generation Roomba, is the robot he's always wanted to build; capable of keeping a home's floors clean with virtually no input needed from the user.

"This robot has 30 times the processing power of its predecessor," he says. "So we're fully into a situation today where we can be running machine learning and visual object recognition technology and very advanced algorithms on the robot, to allow it to continue to execute increasingly complicated code."

iRobot founder and CEO Colin Angle.

"Tell Roomba to clean the kitchen"

The ability to map not only makes the robot quicker and more efficient, but it also lets it integrate much more closely with smart homes. After it's explored your house a few times the i7 will present you with a map via its smartphone app, complete with distinct rooms, which Angle says tends to be "maybe 80 per cent right".

The robot might assume for example that one room is your kitchen, when actually half of it is your dining room. But once you've made any alterations by drawing separating lines on the map, and named your rooms, the robot becomes very efficient at getting from its home base to any specific room you request. This eliminates the need to use physical boxes to create "virtual walls", as was necessary with previous generations, because if there's a specific area you want cleaned or avoided during the regularly scheduled vacuuming you can just point it out.

And if you happen to spill the cornflakes while getting ready for work, you don't have to wait for the scheduled cleaning or reach for your phone to start up the app. You can speak to a Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa device and say "tell Roomba to clean the kitchen", and it will cheerfully do it.

The Roomba i7+ and its automatic dirt disposal clean base.Credit:Tim Biggs

This ability to recognise rooms is a bit of a turning point for iRobot's machines, and Angle says the company's future robots including vacuums, mops and more will be able to share information about your home for more efficient and autonomous cleaning. They'll also get smarter over time.

"The robot is a platform, so every month we'll be adding more capability and more features," Angle says.

"And now that we have memory, in that the robot remembers your home, we can learn. If your robot got stuck, we can figure out where and not do it again. If there are areas that tend to be dirtier than others … we could spend more time cleaning there."

Other features Angle pointed out that could potentially come down the track include labelling places to be cleaned, like "around the kitchen table", or even learning to recognise the people in a household and their daily habits.

Set it and forget it

Aside from the processing and imaging tech, the biggest hardware update is not a change to the robot itself, but to the charging base. In previous models, when the robot's dust bin was filled, a human had to intervene to clean out the bin and set the robot back on its way. But the Roomba i7+ comes with a base that's capable of doing that for you. When the i7+ is full it silently returns home, where the dust is (not so silently) vacuumed into a special chamber, and then the robot returns to its job.

The base can take 30 times the amount of dust that fits in the robot, so you could potentially go months having your floors vacced every day without having to do anything (besides making sure you don't leave a net or a bunch of bras on the floor that could trip it up. I speak from experience). When the base is eventually full, you just need to lift out the filter bag, which closes automatically, throw it away and insert a new one. They're sold separately in packs of three.

You do still need to physically take the bag and put it in the garbage, but not often.Credit:Tim Biggs

With all the updates taken together you have a machine that roams your house autonomously, mapping the layout and scanning for changes, that you can set and forget for months at a time and that will only get more capable of processing the data it collects as time goes on and it receives updates. It's not a wild assumption to say this is the kind of data Google, Amazon and other smart home companies would jump at the chance to tap into, especially since iRobot claims Roomba is the No. 1 brand of vacuum in the US and parts of Europe. Angle says those conversations are already happening, but that selling user data or giving third parties access without user permission is not something iRobot will do.

"It's part of our architecture that if something is going to go up to the cloud to be stored, the user has the ability to say whether they want that to happen. That's part of our ground up commitment to privacy and making sure the owner of the robot stays in full control of everything that's going on," he says.

"If there is an opportunity make your home smarter by sharing some of this information, it would be you the consumer saying 'hey, I'll make this linkage to this other company, to make the light bulbs turn on when I walk here … or so they know the shape of my living room and where it is."

Part of iRobot's plan for the future is to have its platform be able to direct other smart devices that need to know their way around your home. This isn't limited to other cleaning products or even to letting Google Home know where your rooms and appliances are, but could also enable new kinds of semi-autonomous machines.

The example Angle likes to give is a theoretical robot with an arm that's designed to fetch objects from around your house, like a beer from the fridge in the kitchen, and bring it to you. The task would be made a lot easier — and could be accomplished by a much simpler robot — if your Roomba gave it information on your kitchen, your fridge and how to get there.

"Have you ever wondered why [current] home robots now don't have arms? It's because if you don't know where anything is, there's no point," he says. "It's like we've opened a new door of possibility on what robots will be able to do for us in the future."

The author travelled to Tokyo as a guest of iRobot.

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