The parent company of robot vacuum maker Neato Robotics, Germany’s Vorwerk Group, announced late last week that a broad restructuring of its robotics division will result in the closure of Neato and the end of the Neato product line. Vorwerk is promising five years of parts and service availability, along with enough software support to keep current cloud services operational and secure, but it’s the end of an era for a seriously cool family of home robots that were (for a while) ahead of their time.
I’ve had a soft spot for Neato Robotics ever since I met their first robot at CES 2010. At the time, iRobot was dominant in the robot vacuum market (and still is), and Neato sought to challenge that by making a robot that could affordably do what Roombas could not: Map their environment to ensure that they could reliably vacuum your floor in one efficient pass. Back then, Roombas would pseudo-randomly bounce around, relying on a handful of behaviors and a long cleaning time to hit every part of your floor an average of three times. This got things clean, but it looked a little inept, which was a bigger deal than it probably should have been.
Neato’s approach involved using an actual 360-degree lidar to detect walls and furniture, generating remarkably accurate maps as part of its cleaning process. Putting a lidar onto a consumer robot for US $400 (that’s $400 in 2010, but still) was quite an achievement—the lidar hardware itself cost only about $25, and you can still buy affordable lidars based on the same operating principle. In addition to giving a detailed (and eventually interactive) map of where your robot cleaned, the lidar also allowed the Neato to get right up against walls and into corners, making use of its unique (for a while, at least) D shape.
The Neato XV-11 in 2010.Evan Ackerman
In May of 2010, back when I was still writing for BotJunkie.com, I got what I’m pretty sure was the first ever Neato XV-11 review unit—I had to pick it up in person from Neato’s headquarters and promise to return it 24 hours later. It was actually super impressive to see the Neato vacuum back and forth in straight lines, and it held its own against a Roomba 560 in a butter knife fight.
Since then, Neato Robotics has been improving its robots, but with the introduction of the iRobot 980 with VSLAM-based mapping in 2015, Neato lost a major differentiator. And over the last five years or so, the robot vacuum market has become saturated with low-cost competition, which tends not to perform nearly as reliably but does still get floors cleaner than they might be otherwise. In 2017, Neato was acquired by Vorwerk Group, a multibillion-dollar company that sells (among other things) the Thermomix, a magical kitchen appliance that is apparently huge in Europe but barely exists in the United States. Anyway, Vowerk has decided that Neato Robotics has not been successful enough, and it’s being sadly restructured out of existence:
The consolidation of Vorwerk also affects the stake in the US company Neato Robotics, which has been 100 percent owned by the Vorwerk Group since 2017. Neato has brought valuable experience and innovations to Vorwerk’s product development in the field of cleaning robots over the past few years. However, Neato’s independent sales in e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail with a focus on the USA has not been able to be successfully developed, so that the company has not achieved the economic goals it has set itself for several years.
As part of the consolidation, Neato will now be closed despite restructuring efforts, affecting 98 employees worldwide. A 14-strong team in Milan will be taken over by Vorwerk to ensure the security of the infrastructure for Neato’s cloud services for at least five years. The availability of spare and consumable parts and service for necessary repairs are also guaranteed for at least five years.
That last bit is welcome news for all current Neato owners I guess, but still, this is an abrupt and somewhat disappointing end to a company that did some seriously cool work on useful, affordable, and innovative home robots. Neato, you had a weird name, but I loved your robots and you will be missed.
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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.