Neato’s Robot Vacuum Cleaned My Home, Yours Could Be Next (video)

Neato's ready to ship you an XV-11.

Unlike most robot invaders, Neato‘s XV-11 didn’t leave my house a flaming wreck. That’s probably because it’s a vacuum. The latest technology in robotic cleaners, the XV-11 ($399) is head and shoulders above first generation bots like the Roomba. That’s because the little vacuum uses a top-mounted laser detection system and advanced mapping software to plan the best route to clean your carpet. I got to test drive the XV-11’s in my home this week, right as they were shipping out to customers for the first time. The robot did not disappoint. Check out some of its successes and limitations in the video highlights below.

Taking a robot home is probably one of the cooler things a technophile like myself can do. There’s just something about unwrapping a machine and watching it explore your home like a new puppy that makes me smile. Still, the cuteness of the XV-11 wears off pretty quickly, and well it should. This is a working robot, and I was anxious to see how well it worked. Rather than read the instruction manual carefully and optimize my home to see how well the robot could clean, I took the lazy approach. I plugged the docking station into the nearest outlet, set the robot to clean as soon as possible, placed some obstacles out, and hoped for the best. It’s supposed to be a smart robot, right? I might as well be as dumb as possible and see what happens. The results were surprisingly good.

My apartment, for better or worse, isn’t that big. (Curse you San Francisco real estate prices!) With the doors to the bedroom and bathroom open, the XV-11 could clean my whole home in one charge. That was nice. It also happened to work out that the dustbin could handle the whole house without having to be emptied (which you have to do on your own). All in all, I did almost nothing to help the robot out during its process and the floors ended up as clean (if not cleaner) than when I vacuum on my own. Score one for Neato.

That being said, the robot didn’t work perfectly. There were some clear limitations, most of which I could have anticipated after visiting Neato back in February. Here’s where the XV-11 had problems:

Getting Tangled In the Brush: The one area where I absolutely had to intervene was in dislodging the robot from entanglements. This is what I call the “tassel problem” as the bot was determined to eat the decorative fringe on my rug. Like all vacuums, the XV-11 can get fabric and wires caught in its intake, but unlike uprights, it doesn’t have you following it around to get it free. An unsupervised XV-11 will simply shut down and wait when it gets caught. That’s the safe thing to do, but it does mean you could come home to find your bot sitting and stuck, waiting for your help like some kind of petulant child. Having to go through the house and tuck away wires and loose fringe makes owning an autonomous robot vacuum less fun, but it’s a necessity.

This image sums up the advantages of having a smart robot vacuum. The light shows the path the XV-11 took to clean a test area. There's little time or power wasted on overlap.

Sliding Objects: The XV-11 uses laser guidance and an advanced mapping process (SLAM) to plan its route and avoid obstacles. It updates its map constantly, meaning you can walk around the bot and it won’t freak out – it will just reroute itself. The same happens when it accidentally knocks a moveable object around. Which can be a bad thing. It dragged a bathmat around my bathroom, and a stool around my kitchen, but then avoided the places where they landed. This inevitably caused it to miss a few spots in the cleaning process. Now, most people probably don’t vacuum their kitchen and bathroom linoleum, so this won’t be a concern for many. Still, it’s a limitation to consider.

Lost On User Error: While the robot is capable of finding its way home, it failed to do so in my apartment. Why? I didn’t to read the instruction manual. The bot needs some clear space around the station (several feet) to maneuver its way in. You’re supposed to put the dock against a wall and far from any corner. I, however, just plugged the thing in and left it where it laid. Not a good plan. The bot knocked its charging station a few times during the course of its cleaning. Once it finished vacuuming it got close to recharging, but didn’t make it home without help. It took me a while to figure out how to get the bot to finally dock (I had to clear a lot of obstacles and reset the dock). All of this is clearly ‘user error’, but I’m putting this down as a limitation anyway. Why? Because humans take their appliances for granted. Sure we shouldn’t overload the clothes washer, or forget to change the oil in our cars, or leave the coffee pot on forever…but we do. Simply stated, we should keep in mind that the XV-11 isn’t human-proof.

The following video highlights the more interesting moments of the vacuum cleaning my house. The raw footage was 50+ minutes, so forgive me for editing heavily to get this down to around 8. Keep in mind that the bot is pretty boring when it’s working well, so I skipped the majority of the time it performed without a fuss.

I had a brief chat with Neato when I returned the robot, and learned that they are still very much interested in improving and innovating the XV-11 moving forward. A software patch (which will be available even if you’ve already received your XV-11) will help the robot avoid things get stuck in its brush, hopefully eliminating or at least reducing the frequency of the “tassel problem”. Neato is also looking for feedback from its first generation users to help plan future models of the device. My suggestion: let the bot connect with a computer so that a user can see the maps it makes and tell the robot exactly where to go in their home (Neato says this is one of the ideas they’re considering).

Bottom line, Neato makes a great robot vacuum. At $399, it isn’t the cheapest, but I think you definitely get your money’s worth. It has some clear limitations – I think I would definitely do a little tiddying up before I let the XV-11 work unsupervised – but it’s a very useful robot to have around the house.

And there will be more robots around the house. We’ve had domestic bots in the form of appliances for many years (think garage door openers and dishwashers), but autonomous devices that roam and work on their own are still something of a rarity. With iRobot’s launch of Roomba earlier in the decade, it looked like the vacuum cleaner would be the gateway for robots to enter into the home. Now Neato is looking to swing that gate open further by giving its XV-11 something that you don’t see in many robots: good decision making. The XV-11 is smart. SLAM constantly lets the robot know where it is, and where it should be going. It plans the route it will take, avoids obstacles, and knows how to get back to its charging station. Those are all cool capabilities for a robot vacuum cleaner to possess, but they are also the basic requirements needed for many household robots you’d want in your house. The number of tasks these bots will take on is going to increase.  A good rule of thumb: if the work is dull, difficult, or dangerous, we’ll eventually design a robot to do it. Whether they are mowing your lawn, washing your windows, or monitoring your house while you’re gone, the domestic bots of the future are going to have a lot in common with the XV-11. Which means they won’t be perfect, but they will be pretty damn cool.

*Full disclosure: Neato did not charge the writer or Singularity Hub for use of its robot. This could be considered a gift.

[image credits: Aaron Saenz/Singularity Hub, Neato Robotics]

[source: Neato Robotics]

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