Your Roomba has been gathering dust and dander around your home. It’s also been collecting a lot of data: room dimensions and distances between sofas, lamps, and other furniture.

Before they were known for building small, autonomous vacuum cleaners, iRobot was manufacturing bomb disposal robots for the U.S. Army. This was from 1990 until 2002, when iRobot released the world’s first “robovac.” Last year, the company sold off its military unit to focus on the consumer market. iRobot claims that the Roomba still has 88% of the market share for robovacs. The technology industry is excited to improve smart home technology with maps that your Roomba has made of your home.

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Roomba’s Evolution

The company’s wildly successful product, the Roomba, was previously a simple robotic vacuum cleaner. It used the standard short-range IR or laser sensors to find and avoid obstacles. However, with iRobot’s 2015 launch of the 900-series, the Roomba now comes with all of the bells and whistles. It has a camera, new sensors, and software to record and build a map while keeping track of its own location within the map.

This technology, called simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), allows Roomba and its competitors to make smarter decisions. Things that were previously more manual, like charging the vacuum, are now automated with the SLAM technology. The Roomba stops vacuuming, goes back to its dock, recharges, and resumes vacuuming at the same spot where it stopped vacuuming earlier.

New electronics such as smart lights, thermostats, and security cameras still don’t understand their surroundings and home. iRobot’s CEO, Colin Angle, calls these technologies “dumb” in that respect. He believes the Roomba’s mapping technology will improve smart home gadgets.

Angle says, “There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared.”

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iRobot’s Strategy and Execution

Cornell University Professor of Robotics, Guy Hoffman, says detailed spatial mapping technology is a “major breakthrough” for smart homes. Hoffman says, “Right now, smart home devices operate like a tourist in New York who never leaves the subway. There is some information about the city, but the tourist is missing a lot of context for what’s happening outside of the stations.”

Using regularly updated maps, sound systems can match home acoustics and A/Cs can schedule airflow by room. Smart lighting can adjust according to the position of windows and time of day. AI voice assistants can recommend home goods for purchase. Hoffman foresees all of these applications for Roomba’s map data.

Angle’s basing iRobot’s strategy on the maps’ ability to change the course of smart home electronics forever. He assured consumers that iRobot would not sell data without first asking their customers for permission. However, he is confident that most customers will give their consent so they can have a truly smart home.

Investors like Amazon, Apple, and Google champion for this type of data for their smart home devices. All three companies are pushing AI voice assistants as smart home interfaces. According to financial research firm IHS Markit, the market cap for smart home devices was around $9.8 billion in 2016. Projected growth for 2017 is around 60%.

The company’s market value skyrocketed to $2.5 billion with 2016 revenue at $660 million. And in mid-June, iRobot’s stock soared to $102 from last year’s $35.

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Privacy Concerns

iRobot made Roomba compatible with Amazon’s AI voice assistant, Alexa, in March. Angle says iRobot could reach a deal to sell map data to one or more of the Big Three in the next few years. Amazon didn’t comment, and Apple and Google didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Obviously, many people are a little apprehensive about the entire idea. Ben Rose, an analyst who researches iRobot for Battle Road Research, echoed these concerns. “One potential downside is that selling data about users’ homes raises clear privacy issues. Customers could find it sort of a scary thing,” says Rose.

But as Jim Killock, head of the Open Rights Group, explains, the privacy concern is deeper than just consumers’ fear. Killock explains, “This is a particularly creepy example of how our privacy can be undermined by companies that want to profit from the information that smart devices can generate about our homes and lives.” Killock brings up data protection laws and mentions their lack of limitations on a situation like this.

“Companies should treat data collected in people’s homes as if it is personal data and ensure that explicit consent is sought to gather and share this information. Taking an ethical approach, rather than complying with minimal legal requirements, would build trust with customers.”

– Killock

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iRobot’s Competition

iRobot has its maps for now. But the growing number of similar patents filed in recent years threatens iRobot’s market share. The company’s larger competitors, like Dyson and Bissell, are also starting to corner the market with their cheaper Roomba competitors.

The Roomba, which ranges from $375 to $899, is expensive compared to similar products. Bissell’s SmartClean retails at $300, while Hoover’s Quest 600 costs even less at $270.

Willem Mesdag, managing partner of hedge fund Red Mountain Capital, has an interesting view of Roomba’s competition. He believes iRobot will be a great acquisition for one of the Big Three. “The competition is focused on making cleaning products, not a mapping robot,” says Mesdag.

Bundle the privacy concern with cheaper alternatives, and you might say, “Why would consumers even consider Roomba?” That is another big risk for iRobot to mitigate. But iRobot has one thing going for them: over 1,000 patents worldwide. And these patents are being put to the test in a few patent infringement lawsuits that iRobot filed against Bissell, Stanley Black & Decker, Hoover, Chinese manufacturers, and other robovac designers.

The patents are a “huge part of our competitive moat,” says Angle. “It is getting really hard not to step on our intellectual property.”

If this hasn’t scared you away from iRobot’s products, check out their newest sweeper and mopper vacuum, the iRobot Braava jet 240.

 

Sources: Reuters, Smithsonian