Dyson has been working on a robot vacuum, for, like, ever, man. Seriously. This thing has been a project for a solid decade, perhaps longer. We haven't heard a peep on the subject for years, but apparently, Dyson released a few new normal vacuum models recently and dropped some hints about why the heck it's taking them so long to come out with a robot.
Back at the dawn of time (also known as 2004), Dyson had a fancy robot vacuum called the DC06 that they were all set to start selling commercially. The DC06 is in the pic at the top of this article, and it was supposedly fantastic, doing all of its own obstacle avoidance and localization while incorporating a superbly powerful vacuum. It weighed a ton, though, and would have cost $6,000 (thanks to "three onboard computers, 2,000 electronic components, 27 separate circuit boards and 70 sensory devices"), so Dyson thought better of the whole thing and pulled the plug:
Earlier this year, Pete Pachal (who I used to work for before he moved over to Mashable, hi Pete!) asked Dyson's industrial design director, Alex Knox, where the robot vacuum was:
In our experience, it's very easy to say that robot vacuums aren't good enough, and point out ways in which they could be better. The hard part is actually solving these problems. iRobot's position, for example, is that vacuum robots are a maintenance tool, and can't take over for a human wielding (say) a regular Dyson upright vacuum. So, if Dyson is really trying to make a robot vacuum that's capable of completely replacing a human with a vacuum, they've got their work cut out of them.
Anyway, here's the latest update, from Sir James Dyson himself:
“We’ve been developing robotic vacuum cleaners for years, a long time, and we will come out with one that works. At the moment they have very poor pickup and they mostly wonder around aimlessly with lousy suction. If you’ve got powerful suction you’re using up a lot of battery, therefore you’ve got to do the floor methodically without doubling up anywhere and without bouncing around. It is a really serious and difficult problem to solve but I’m not interested in producing a gimmick."
Toby Saville, a fellow engineer in the Dyson Product Performance Team, elaborates:
“Ever since I can remember, robot vacuum cleaners have been of interest to Dyson and I’ve been here 11 years. It is a very key project for James and I think he does believe that for a vacuum cleaner, robotics can be a very important element. Over that time, there has been a lot of evolution in robotics technology as well so perhaps we have got close to market a few times and thought ‘oh look, there’s a new development we think is meaningful and useful’ and then it goes back to the drawing board for another three year cycle. We absolutely won’t launch the product until it’s at a capable level that people are going to be happy with and impressed with. I can’t put a timeframe on it, right now it’s really hard to say but the market is increasing.”
The only risk with this sort of approach is that you'll end up spending something like 11 years going through three year cycles over and over without ever reaching some sort of happy (or at least satisfactory) medium between price and performance and perfection. I'm sure that whenever Dyson is satisfied with the end product, it'll be spectacular, but I really hope I'm still alive to experience it for myself.
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Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.