Sunday, May 31, 2009

iRobot Plans to Potty Train Roomba! Patent Filing Shows Designs for Roomba Self-Cleaning Dock...

BREAKING/EXCLUSIVE: Roomba will finally learn how to go potty, all by him or herself, if iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) follows through on a patent application published this year.
According to the patent filing discovered by Robot Stock News, iRobot has designed numerous possible self-cleaning docks for the Roomba so that its owners don't have to clean it. That is the biggest problem with the current Roomba -- when you pay a few hundred bucks for a robot vacuum, why should you have to then empty and clean it yourself? It's a robot, after all! Cleaning Roomba can be a bit of a messy process, although still far better than lugging an upright vacuum around yourself every day. A successful Roomba self-cleaning dock would bring the product much further to the "set it and forget it" ideal in robot appliance heaven. And it easily could be a popular and profitable add-on to the existing Roomba, as I'd imagine many of the 3 million Roomba owners would be willing to shell out as much as $200 for the privilege of not having to clean the vacuum.

I count more than a dozen different designs in the patent application (pics at bottom), some of which would require a minor redesign of the Roomba. Others appear likely to work with the existing models. In general, the idea is this: the new dock will have its own vacuum. When the Roomba docks (a.k.a. goes potty), its contents will be vacuumed out and into the dock, which will hold between three and ten times more dirt than the Roomba itself. Hair and other debris stuck on the Roomba's rolling brushes could be automatically sliced, combed and vacuumed off. The dock vacuum could be full powered, like a regular upright -- pulling 6 to 12 amps, according to the patent application, which was initially filed in May 2007 before being published in February. One design has Roomba exchanging dirty cleaning cartridges with fresh cartridges via the dock. Another hooks directly into a whole-house vacuum system, so you never even have to empty it. (Cool, but how many people have those?) As always, it's not clear if any of these designs will ever become a shipping product. The company has previously filed patent applications for a robotic lawnmower and more recently a Square-Front Roomba, neither of which have yet become a reality. My guess is that if it were a simple proposition, we would have seen a product in the two years since this application was filed, but surely iRobot does not want to put out a product that does not work with absolute ease and reliability and may have to wait until the next generation of Roomba to implement it. (Square front, anyone?)

At any rate, a self-cleaning Roomba has been pined for for years, but seen as too much of a technological challenge for a sub-$1,000 robot. (The discontinued $1,500 Karcher RC3000 - pictured at right - also had a self-cleaning feature, but its cost put it out of reach for mainstream consumers).

As promised here are the additional pics of the various designs for a Roomba cleaning/docking station:

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