Suck it up! Neato Is Ready to Kick Robot Vacuum Butt

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neato robot vacuum xv-11

Laser range finding, SLAM navigation, an LCD screen and more powerful suction. The XV-11 is a Roomba killer, no doubt about it.

It’s been more than seven years since iRobot introduced the world to the Roomba robotic vacuum. Seven years without fundamental innovation, and its left the market ripe for competition. Enter Neato. This Silicon Valley startup is ready to take the robotic vacuum world by storm. The engineers over at Neato Robotics let us take a tour of their Mountain View home and get a first hand look at the XV-11 ($399), the vacuum robot that’s going to kill the Roomba. Yep, Neato doesn’t like to judge the competition, but I don’t mind talking trash: Neato has a bot that sees better, works smarter, and sucks harder…and that’s a good thing. After talking with VP Patrick De Neale, I can tell you that Neato isn’t just building the next great robotic vacuum, it’s building the next great robotic empire with more than $15 million in funding and retailers lined up to get the vacuum to market. Don’t fret robo-junkies, we’ve got some great videos and pics to sate your hunger for machine machinations after the break.

Why Do We Need a Better Vacuum Bot?

The Roomba is the reigning champ of the vacuum robot industry. iRobot has sold more than 5 million units in the last seven years and they show no sign of stopping. For those who have never watched one in action, the Roomba doesn’t see where it’s going, it just bumps into things. A large bumper sensor in the front lets the Roomba bounce off walls and other obstacles. It uses a series of algorithms to chaotically travel around. This chaos eventually lets the Roomba clean an entire room. It’s not very efficient, and Roomba’s round shape doesn’t let it fit into corners. The Roomba is cool to watch the first time, but I always feel like it didn’t leave the carpet completely clean.

Rather than going back to the drawing board every few years, iRobot has made subtle improvements on a basic design that leaves much to be desired. The Roomba you could buy today cleans in the same way that the Roomba did seven years ago. Why? Because iRobot is spending their time making some cool army and healthcare bots, not innovating the Roomba. That’s why a new company can come along and take advantage of the seven years of lost chances. That’s why Neato is going to explode onto the scene.

Their XV-11 is a laser toting, map making, high suction machine that will clean your floor in just one pass. Neato looked at the standard bump and grind approach of the Roomba and decided it could do better. It started from scratch, looking for a whole new way for the robot to approach vacuuming. The first major innovation: the XV-11 doesn’t wander around randomly, it cleans like you do. It looks, it thinks, and it executes.

Here’s Neato’s promotional video for the XV-11:

On top of the XV-11’s half moon shaped chassis is a laser range finder which sweeps around in a full 360 ° circle. That inexpensive but well performing range finder is the centerpiece of the device and a crucial innovation in robotics, check out the discussion on Hizook for more details. Using that view of its environment, the XV-11 plots out how it will vacuum the room using a method known as SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping). SLAM’s the same technique that helps robotic cars find a parking space.

The following is an exclusive video from Neato showing an early prototype (not the XV-11) mapping a room. Notice those purple footprints moving around? That’s a person walking through the area.

Using this technique and its laser, the XV-11 is able to constantly find its position in the context of the room, and its able to compensate for changes in the environment. When you walk through a room the XV-11 is cleaning, it knows to avoid you. It can also avoid obstacles you place in its way and will go back and clean areas that become open when an object is removed. While you may be inclined to challenge the robot’s skills by maniacally placing chairs in its way, the intended application is that the robot can clean an entire area using straight lines and with a minimum of overlap.

With SLAM, the XV-11 is able to clean smarter. It covers the floor of a room with close to a single pass – no more crazy circles and spirals and bumping exploration like the Roomba. With no time wasted getting lost, the XV-11 can afford to spend more effort on the actual vacuuming. 80% of the power used by the robot goes directly towards sucking carpet. That means cleaner floors in less time.

We got to see a live demo of the XV-11 in action and it was as impressive as watching a robot vacuum can be. Check it out:

But the XV-11 doesn’t just clean more efficiently, it cleans smarter. Neato has incorporated a bunch of new features to prove it’s creating robot vacuum 2.0. It has a square front to help it reach corners but a round butt so it can easily back out of tight spaces. The XV-11 also has a ground sensor to let it know when it comes near a drop. That means it won’t fall down stairs or roll down to a level it can’t climb out of. If you move the charger, the XV-11 will follow it to maintain good contact and keep charging. The bot stops if there’s a problem with the brush, or if it overheats due to something stuck in the intake. The XV-11 even alerts you when the dust bin is full and will wait for you to empty it. Whenever it stops (and you don’t move it around too much) it will resume its cleaning as soon as the problem is fixed. If the room’s too big and the XV-11 runs out of juice mid-vacuuming, it will go charge itself and then return and finish the job. It has that Terminator attitude we all love and fear to see in our household robots.

neato robot xv-11

The XV-11 is smart enough not to fall down stairs.

I think the best of these smart innovations is the inclusion of a LCD screen on the top of the robot. It lets the robot actually tell you when something’s wrong. The screen also provides an easy user interface for when you want to program the bot to follow a regular weekly schedule (I forgot to mention it can do that, too). I watched as De Neale set the clock and programmed the XV-11 for two weekly cleanings – it was fast and painless thanks to the onboard screen.

Of course, the XV-11 has some limitations. First is size. The XV-11’s special moon shape is a good idea, but it’s still too big to get into really narrow spaces. There’s a power vs agility trade off here that every company has to deal with. Neato chose a little bigger, a little more powerful, and that’s a plus and minus.

There’s also some limits in the way the robot works. For mapping and plotting its course, the bot divides its environment into 1 inch cells and I noticed that this means it overlaps its path by about an inch. It also doesn’t hug the walls as closely as I would have liked – it’s closer than an inch, but not right up against it. Despite the use of its laser, the XV-11 still has bump sensors to help it navigate close areas. That’s fine, but as it follows a wall it will bump into it fairly often, and that’s something you won’t see in most of the demo videos.

If you want to seal off an area, Neato will sell you some nice magnetic strip to mark a “no-pass” line. Of course, you then have to either embed the strip in your carpet, leave it on top, or pick it up and replace it each time the vacuum cleans. I would have liked a tiny electronic device (maybe an IR transmitter?) to be used instead.

Overall, however, the XV-11 is a pretty slick operator. De Neale showed us how it could map their entire office for cleaning (thousands of square feet) and handle basically any floor type you threw at it. This robot impresses me as a very efficient device. There was no haphazard exploration, no endless passes over the same patch of carpet like a Roomba. I felt no need to cheer the XV-11 on, to encourage it to miraculously reach the last missing bit of the floor. This isn’t the little robot that could. It’s the robot that did its job, went home, and slept with its charger.

trace of xv-11 path

This is a light trace of the XV-11 cleaning a room. It's efficient and leaves the carpet looking nice.

The Company Behind the Machine

Neato Robotics has done really well for itself in a short amount of time. Its funding last year brought in $15 million – a handy amount for a company with just 25 employees. They’ve got the XV-11 on a fast track towards distribution. Pre-orders are available on the Neato site now, and you’re likely to see the bot on Amazon, Hammacher-Schlemmer and other online retailers soon. As of our visit, Neato was still in talks with big box retailers, but they expect many will pick up the robot. By the end of the first quarter of 2010, the XV-11 will be taking on the competition.

Speaking of competition, I went to Neato expecting to hear some major trash talk about iRobot, but I didn’t get zilch. De Neale actually offered praise for competitor’s robotic cleaners, including the Roomba, the Mint, and others. Bottom line, he says, current robots only have about 2% of the entire vacuum market. That’s plenty of room for expansion, and at this level, every competitor is helping grow consumer interest. I understand his reasoning, but having watched both a Roomba and the XV-11…I don’t think there’s much of a comparison. I love iRobot, they do some mind-blowing work in robotics, but they don’t have the best robotic vacuum cleaner anymore. Sorry Roomba, you let yourself rest on your success, and you got sloppy. Now Neato’s here to pick up the pieces. Literally.

When a company makes an impressive robot, you tend to think of them as a robotics company. Yet for Neato, I don’t think its so cut and dry. Are they a robotics company that makes vacuums, or a household appliance company that makes robots? De Neale left the answer somewhat ambiguous. They’re “freeing consumers from traditional household chores.”

Which makes it hard for me to pin down what Neato might be up to next. We got a lot of fun hints at what the XV-11 series 2 or 3 may include (memorizing maps, varied power use for different floor types, remote control) but it was all kept in the hypothetical. I can tell you that their unnamed parts manufacturer in China has wide experience and that Neato has met with many different companies looking to develop household appliance bots. So I guess we could conceivably see Neato expand into other robots that map and perform tasks around your home and office (window washing? garden tending? who knows?) For now though, the company and De Neale seem focused on making the XV-11 a big success.

What happens if the XV-11 does really well? That’s good for Neato, no doubt, but it’s part of a larger picture. Robot vacuums are just one of the many routes automation has taken to get inside your home. Your dishwasher? That’s a robot. So is your garage door opener. As this technology becomes more sophisticated it could lead to a full humanoid robot walking around your house. In our talk, De Neale made an interesting prediction: roboticists aren’t going to take robots to market, consumer developers will. Willow Garage, Honda, Carnegie Mellon…these guys make some amazing bots. But it may be the companies that want to sell appliances that bring robots into the mainstream. That’s an interesting thought. Will robots develop artificial general intelligence or surpass the human brain if we only build them to help out around the house? Eh, maybe not. In any case, at least we know that our floors will be clean.


[photo credits: Neato Robotics]

Discussion — 36 Responses

  • Keith Kleiner February 9, 2010 on 5:40 pm

    You gotta love the roomba ads that adsense is automatically putting next to this post. Don't buy it! Wait for the XV-11 and get yourself a REAL robot vacuum.

  • Charmaine February 9, 2010 on 7:40 pm

    The XV-11 is a smart innovation.

  • David February 9, 2010 on 7:58 pm

    Does it come in lawnmower version? :)

  • Derek P. February 9, 2010 on 9:23 pm

    if this works on dark carpets, I am buying one today.

  • Thierry T February 11, 2010 on 12:54 am

    We are at our third Roomba.

    While in theory the driving design could be better, this not a real issue in practice. Yes, it will not catch everything in one pass. We just leave it longer. Not a big deal.

    The real issues with the Roomba are:
    - the quick wearing out of the different parts, and
    - the constant need for cleaning up its parts (brushes, filter,…)

    If someone could come up with a better design for these flaws, that would be a winner. All our Roombas so far have started having issues after few months. We like the concept and did not give up. We upgraded to the latest model each time. Still something is going to break sooner than later.

  • Carl February 11, 2010 on 2:40 am

    I have 3 Roombas and 1 Scooba. I agree with Thierry T's points above. The Roomba does a great job with it's random wandering. It would be nice to have neat rows, though. I like the Neato door detection so it does one room at a time automatically as well, and the square corner feature is a plus.

    If i were to improve on the Roomba, I would:

    1 – Make it so it does not get stuck if the bottom of furniture exactly equals the height of the robot. (I have a couch where this is the case). A simple fix would be to provide a screw-in bumper to extend the height of the existing bumper.
    2 – Bigger dirt bin so I can ignore it more.
    3 – Higher capacity battery that needs replacing less often (though maybe that is fixed with newer Roombas, as I have yet to change batteries on my two new ones.)
    4 – Address what Thierry T posted above, in particular make it more tolerant to hair.

    I never really got my Scooba to work right. It's awesome when it works, and does a much better job than hand-mopping, but it always complains that something is not inserted right or whatever, so I gave up on it. Perhaps that's because I had an early model.

    • Connie Carl August 1, 2010 on 12:55 pm

      It would be nice if the Roomba had been built to last. I own two and both broke down and the website for obtaining customer service is useless, they never e-mail or phone back. They do forward your e-mail address to their sales department though so they can send you ads to purchase a new Roomba on a weekly basis.

      I just replaced my Roomba with a Samsung robotic vacuum cleaner, much quieter, doesn’t bang into walls but still hits furniture and recharges itself then continues cleaning where it left off. Only time will tell if it outlasts Roomba. Looking forward to Neato becoming available in Canada.

  • Ciantic February 11, 2010 on 4:06 pm

    Company is Neato, and robot is called XV-11, right? Why they didn't name the robot also like, umm Neato? More friendlier than XV-11… Roomba is also catchy name, Neato would be perfect also.

  • Leo February 12, 2010 on 3:40 am

    Are we talking black cat in a coal mine at night dark, or just a standard brown carpet dark? It will work on most carpets but YMMV.

  • Leo February 12, 2010 on 3:43 am

    Husqvarna makes a robotic lawnmower.
    http://www.husqvarna.com/us/homeowner/products/

  • Charlie February 17, 2010 on 7:47 pm

    Is this company still in operation??? I have been trying to get a follow up on an order for weeks, no one answers the phone, no emails returned and my order status is “On Permanent Hold”.

  • Jackie T February 24, 2010 on 1:09 am

    I think XV-11 is the current *model* of Neato robots.

  • Jackie T February 24, 2010 on 1:10 am

    Daaang.

  • Jen March 8, 2010 on 6:26 pm

    Yes, the company is definitely still operating. I noticed on my order the “on permanent hold” has been changed to pre-order

  • MrGuy March 13, 2010 on 3:17 am

    My order says “Pre-order” and status says BO as in “Back-Order”. I spoke with some lady at Neato about why its not shipping and she told me there are some manufacturing issues; as in factories which actually manufacture the product…something like that. Anyway, she said it probably wont ship until either June or July.

  • Gribbit April 3, 2010 on 12:38 pm

    Does one of these manufacturers include a manual-control option for their robo-vac? I’m thinking something as simple as a detachable broomstick-like handle on its top, coupled with its wheels being left in neutral. Having a detachable hose with attachments for cleaning furniture, shelves, etc. would be icing on the cake. For the time being, there remains a need for spot cleaning and detail work, and if I’m on a budget, I’m somewhat disinclined to buy a robot AND an ordinary utility vacuum cleaner. If I could just jam a manual-control handle into the machine and go sweep up some spilled flour, or carry a nice, lightweight machine over to my stairs for cleaning, I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about getting one of these.

  • Gribbit April 3, 2010 on 8:38 am

    Does one of these manufacturers include a manual-control option for their robo-vac? I’m thinking something as simple as a detachable broomstick-like handle on its top, coupled with its wheels being left in neutral. Having a detachable hose with attachments for cleaning furniture, shelves, etc. would be icing on the cake. For the time being, there remains a need for spot cleaning and detail work, and if I’m on a budget, I’m somewhat disinclined to buy a robot AND an ordinary utility vacuum cleaner. If I could just jam a manual-control handle into the machine and go sweep up some spilled flour, or carry a nice, lightweight machine over to my stairs for cleaning, I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about getting one of these.

  • Wonderin May 8, 2010 on 2:15 pm

    The Neato has been “coming soon” for six months; no apparent updates to the web site, no reports of any XV-11’s in the wild. Smoke and mirrors.

  • Wonderin May 8, 2010 on 6:15 pm

    The Neato has been “coming soon” for six months; no apparent updates to the web site, no reports of any XV-11’s in the wild. Smoke and mirrors.

  • susan June 9, 2010 on 3:31 pm

    Is there a coupon promotion code for the neato xv-11?

    • MrGuy susan June 27, 2010 on 11:54 pm

      Is there even a robot to buy? I’ve had mine on back-order since February 2010.

  • susan June 9, 2010 on 11:31 am

    Is there a coupon promotion code for the neato xv-11?

    • MrGuy susan June 27, 2010 on 7:54 pm

      Is there even a robot to buy? I’ve had mine on back-order since February 2010.

  • Freimann June 29, 2010 on 10:06 pm

    I really wonder how fast the dust storage gets full!

  • Freimann June 29, 2010 on 6:06 pm

    I really wonder how fast the dust storage gets full!

  • Winnie July 15, 2010 on 4:56 am

    Have you seen the Plus A or IClebo robot vacuums by Yujin company? They have a page that does a comparison of their units to the Roomba by IRobot at http://www.alpharobot.com.au/pr02.htm. Seems impressive. How do you think this Neato compares to the Yujin company’s products?

  • Winnie July 15, 2010 on 12:56 am

    Have you seen the Plus A or IClebo robot vacuums by Yujin company? They have a page that does a comparison of their units to the Roomba by IRobot at http://www.alpharobot.com.au/pr02.htm. Seems impressive. How do you think this Neato compares to the Yujin company’s products?

  • The Cat Lady July 15, 2010 on 8:14 pm

    Will it come in 220v for those of use who are not in a 110v country? I really want one.

  • The Cat Lady July 15, 2010 on 4:14 pm

    Will it come in 220v for those of use who are not in a 110v country? I really want one.

  • sandiego July 27, 2010 on 4:54 pm

    Anybody thoughts that Aaron could be Neato employee? He tells us that Neato has more advantages than e.g. Samsung. I wonder if he test them both, to make as comparation as here.

  • sandiego July 27, 2010 on 12:54 pm

    Anybody thoughts that Aaron could be Neato employee? He tells us that Neato has more advantages than e.g. Samsung. I wonder if he test them both, to make as comparation as here.

  • Connie August 1, 2010 on 4:55 pm

    It would be nice if the Roomba had been built to last. I own two and both broke down and the website for obtaining customer service is useless, they never e-mail or phone back. They do forward your e-mail address to their sales department though so they can send you ads to purchase a new Roomba on a weekly basis.

    I just replaced my Roomba with a Samsung robotic vacuum cleaner, much quieter, doesn’t bang into walls but still hits furniture and recharges itself then continues cleaning where it left off. Only time will tell if it outlasts Roomba. Looking forward to Neato becoming available in Canada.

  • Neato XV-11 Review November 22, 2010 on 5:11 pm

    Neato XV-11 is a huge positive step in robot vacuum technology. It is easily current leader bypassing iRobots.

  • Ki_monroe December 7, 2010 on 12:26 am

    no roomba is way better the neato goes over it once and the roomba goes over it 4x b4 it decides its done

  • Kocaeli halı yıkama January 22, 2011 on 7:43 am

    I liked the article was really a
    kız oyunları
    Kocaeli ve tüm ilçelerine nakliyat hizmeti sunan kocaeli nakliyat firması.

  • Ebtec February 19, 2013 on 12:12 pm

    Love my Roomba but it does not last. Wonder how good the quality will be on thin one