Vacuums are the most successful consumer home robots ever, and they’re likely to remain so for quite a while, simply because they do quite a good job at keeping your floors clean in a reliable and affordable way. For robot vacuum manufacturers, this is a bit of a problem: As we very often point out in our reviews, lower-end models clean just about as effectively as more expensive ones, often making it difficult to justify an upgrade.
Today, Neato Robotics is introducing a new flagship robot vacuum that we think offers one of the most significant advances we’ve seen in years: persistent, actionable maps. Like its predecessors, the D7 uses a lidar sensor to create a map of your house as it goes, but now, the robot will remember that map and allow you to interact with it. Neato is starting off simple with what you’ll be able to do (like defining no-go zones), but it’s an incredibly powerful feature that’s necessary for the future of all home robots.
The Neato Botvac D7 Connected, introduced today at the IFA trade show in Berlin, features a cosmetic redesign, a bigger battery, more processing power and memory, and some extra cleaning modes. Otherwise, it’s physically very similar to the current Neato Botvac Connected series of robots, with its characteristic round lidar module at the back.
But this, right here, is what’s super exciting about the D7:
See that little red line? It’s a virtual boundary that you can set on the map that the robot generates, allowing you to tell it where not to go within Neato’s app. For this to work, the D7 makes a map of your home, and then stores that map between cleaning sessions. Every time the robot cleans, the map gets refined and updated, but they key here is that it persists: The D7 remembers the layout of your home, allowing it to recognize where the virtual no-go lines are and respond to them as it cleans, doing away with physical barriers.
While convenient, virtual boundaries are not, in of themselves, a game-changing feature. What is a game-changing feature is what persistent maps imply about the very near future for Neato’s robots. Neato is planning to make incremental app upgrades to this mapping functionality every six months or so, and you can easily imagine the kinds of things they could add beyond these very simple lines that the robot shouldn’t cross. For example, how about being able to draw areas instead of just lines? Or, select specific areas that you want the robot to clean more often? Maybe you want some areas cleaned on some days, but not cleaned on others. And it gets much, much more interesting.
We asked Neato Robotics CEO Giacomo Marini to speculate a little bit for us about what might be coming next with persistent maps, and he very kindly agreed, although he asked us to note that this speculation is not any sort of feature announcement or promise about what Neato might do in the future. Here’s what Marini told us:
The next thing could be segmenting your rooms. Most people think of their house as a collection of rooms, and think of the floor cleaning on that basis. You may want to clean the kitchen every day and clean your bedroom three times a week. There might be other things: As you go around the house, you can imagine, for example, if the robot gets stuck in one particular corner two or three times, maybe it marks that area as a place to avoid. So, getting a little bit smarter about learning the environment.
The idea that the robot can identify specific rooms is a powerful one, and we’re not surprised that it could be the next step for Neato’s mapping software. At first, it’ll almost certainly be you segmenting and labeling rooms by hand so that you can tell your D7, “Go clean the kitchen.” It’s not hard to imagine how the robot might soon be able to tell what kind of room it’s in (bedroom, dining room, kitchen, etc.) through the patterns that it detects with its sensors. A table and lots of chairs? That’s a dining room. Couch and coffee table? Living room. The small room with hard floor is a bathroom, and kitchens tend to have hard floors and shapes that allow for lots of counter space rather than openness.
Future versions of Neato’s mapping software may be able to identify specific rooms by their layout and furniture, so you can tell the robot, “Go clean the kitchen.” Photo: Neato Robotics
Now, imagine that the robot gets even a little bit smarter than that. Rather than having to tell it that you want the kitchen cleaned three times a week, the robot could gradually learn that the kitchen gets dirtier than the rest of the house and therefore should be vacuumed more often. Neato’s robots can already detect especially dirty areas of the floor, so that could be a straightforward thing to add. Eventually, the robot could autonomously generate an optimal cleaning schedule for your entire house, which could involve cleaning just the specific spots that get dirty frequently, and everywhere else on occasion.
Beyond vacuuming, the D7’s understanding of your floor could potentially let it interact much more effectively with other smart home devices, but doing that would likely involve the sharing of map data, an idea that recently created a bit of a (way overblown) kerfuffle for iRobot, and Neato is looking to avoid any misunderstandings.
“The construction of the full map is done on the robot,” says Marini. “The maps are sent to the cloud and then to the app. We do store maps and we disclose that to our customers. We don’t share maps with anybody else: We use the maps exclusively to provide services to our customers. We don’t intend to sell or share maps—we keep them very, very private. If we were, one day, to discover that some sharing with other applications might make sense, we will be totally open and clear with our customers and give them the option for that. This is a choice that the consumer will have to make.” Overall, Neato’s business strategy does not involve monetization of data, Marini tells us. “We make money by selling robots, and we sell more robots when people are happy with them.”
Neato’s app lets you use applications like IFTTT to integrate the robot with other smart home devices. Image: Neato Robotics
There may be some people who are less than happy with the D7, and that would be owners of Neato’s earlier top of the line (and quite expensive) vacuums, since the persistent maps functionality is supported only by the D7. We were told that Neato’s vacuums are on a two-year cycle of major updates, and by the time the D7 is released it’ll have been about two years since the original Botvac Connected came out.
It’s certainly true that the D7 has a more powerful computer to help it do map things, but since the Connected makes what looks to be essentially the same map, it’s a bit disappointing that Neato isn’t making this work for people who invested in the previous Connected model (although Connected owners will get an app refresh that does include IFTTT integration). I know, Neato has to make money and sell new robots so that they can continue innovating and whatnot, but it seems like the best we can hope for (and this is my hope, not Neato’s) is that some of the new features might be available as in-app paid upgrades at some point.
With that in mind, we asked Marini whether Neato is going to stick with vacuums, or whether they’re starting to look at other robotic applications for the home:
This is a bit of a delicate question, because we think we know what we want to do next, but it might be a little too early to talk about. But, to speak in very general terms, if we look at the home, our view is that we want more robots that do useful things for you. What would you do in the general area of cleaning, after you clean the floor? You would probably clean your sink, maybe your toilet, maybe your shower and bathtub, other vertical surfaces, windows—you’ve probably seen some approaches to robotic window cleaning. We believe the right approach is different from what we have seen so far. That’s one category of things. If you go one step further, loading and unloading the dishwasher, taking the dishes from the table to the dishwasher, those kinds of things. In order to do these kinds of applications, you need to be able to move intelligently, and you also need a few other things that you can probably imagine.
Yup, that would be manipulators that we’re imagining.
The Neato Botvac D7 Connected will be available in Q4 of this year for US $800.
[ Neato Robotics ]