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]