Q&A: How iRobot Engineered Its New Roomba i7+ Robot Vacuum and Clean Base

We talk to Ken Bazydola at iRobot about the world's fanciest robotic vacuuming system

4 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

iRobot Roomba i7+ with Clean Base
Image: iRobot

If you’re in the market for a very, very fancy robot vacuum, you’ll want to read our review of the iRobot Roomba i7+, which is as fancy as it gets. Persistent mapping and localization enable all kinds of cool new features, and an automatic recharging base that also magically empties the Roomba’s dust bin means that you can go for weeks or months at a time with zero effort cleaner floors.

iRobot put a lot of effort into making the i7+ effective enough and reliable enough that they can send it out into a world of homes that are all different from one another and have confidence that it’ll do what it’s supposed to do, which is no small achievement. And for some extra details about the i7+ and iRobot’s approach to consumer robotics, we spoke with Ken Bazydola, Director of Product Management at iRobot, via email.

iRobot Roomba i7+ with Clean BaseRoomba i7+ with Clean Base.Image: iRobot

IEEE Spectrum: Can you talk about some of the specific technical challenges involved in creating a cleaning base, and how iRobot solved them?

Ken Bazydola: The iRobot engineering team has spent several years and developed many prototype designs to perfect the process of automatically evacuating dirt from the robot’s dustbin. Among the hardest engineering challenges were getting the robot to align the evacuation port precisely with the Clean Base port, developing a viable method of evacuating the dirt, and ensuring all the contents of the robot’s dust bin were consistently and thoroughly transferred from the robot’s bin to the final destination in the Clean Base disposable bag. iRobot had to ensure a vacuum seal from the robot’s dustbin through to the Clean Base’s dirt disposal bag, ensuring there would not be a loss of suction and that dust and dirt would not escape back into the environment. The Roomba i7+ with Clean Base Automatic Dirt Disposal has undergone thousands of lab and in-home tests.

What are some new features or updates to the i7+ that might not be immediately obvious, or that aren’t getting talked about much? 

In addition to the Clean Base Automatic Dirt Disposal and Imprint Smart Mapping, there are a few other noteworthy developments on the Roomba i7 and i7+. Overall cleaning performance has been improved with several updates to components of the cleaning system. For example, the two Multi-Surface Rubber Brushes have been improved, with one of the brushes now featuring longer fletches to help improve large debris pickup. The engineering team also improved airflow through the cleaning system to seal up potential air leaks and allow the Clean Base to generate enough suction to remove the contents of the Roomba dust bin. The reduction of these air leaks improved the robot’s suction. The robot’s motor was also moved from inside of the dustbin, where it’s found on previous generation Roomba vacuums, to inside of the robot’s housing. By doing this, the robot is quieter during operation. And because the electrical components were removed from the dustbin, the bin can now be washed under a sink once the filter is removed. Finally, with a new sensor, the robot has improved performance on black carpets. 

Have you found that successive generations of Roomba are becoming more software intensive and less hardware intensive? Or, how much is software driving robotics development at iRobot as opposed to hardware?

Yes, but not completely. The majority of tech hires at iRobot over the last two years have been from the software world, and there is a big opportunity to differentiate our products through software-enabled capabilities. iRobot has a huge commitment to developing the intelligence and navigation code that enables the type of experience that robots like the i7+ deliver. With that said, robots are inherently a fusion between software and hardware. It’s true that software content has increased dramatically, but hardware also has to some extent. Examples of how hardware has become more challenging include the fact that with Wi-Fi, we must ensure that a robot coexists, and it neither impacts or is impacted by other electronics. iRobot has also added substantial processing capability, and our designs must ensure that those processors are effectively cooled to maximize performance.

iRobot Roomba i7+ with Clean BaseThe i7 features improved memory, processing, and mapping capabilities.Image: iRobot

Have the recent successes followed by failures in the social home robots market changed iRobot’s approach to the consumer robotics space?

Our approach has remained consistent over time, which is to focus on practical robots that provide value. People naturally look to innovation that can provide meaningful value, and at a cost that is attainable. Our robots focus on a particular task, such as vacuuming or mopping, and they do that task very well.

Generally, what kind of functionality have you heard from consumers that they would like to see added to robot vacuums?

We’re always trying to bring the cleaning performance of our vacuums to the next level. Our engineering teams work hard to refine and improve various components of the robot to achieve better pickup performance and efficiency. Aside from cleaning performance, our customers are very excited about the potential of what connectivity and mapping capabilities can do for their robot and the broader smart home ecosystem. And our customers have no shortage of suggestions— from robots intelligently communicating and working together to clean the house, to more customizable cleaning commands, like vacuuming in specific areas that need attention. The improved memory, processing and mapping capabilities of the new Roomba i7/i7+, combined with the cutting-edge software engineering happening behind the scenes at iRobot, means robotic vacuums have entered a new era of features and functions that has only just begun. Over time, existing robots will take on increased capabilities through software updates.

[ iRobot i7+ ]

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