Wednesday, September 29, 2010

iRobot Patents NEW Roomba Navigation System, Could Match Neato Robotics Vacuum, Mint Robot

iRobot's New "Celestial" Roomba Navigation System
The days of Roomba bouncing around your house like a blind drunk may be coming to an end.
Robot Stock News has discovered that iRobot Corporation (NASDAQ:IRBT) has patented an intelligent new navigation system for its Roomba line of robotic vacuums that will enable it to compete with the new crop of autonomous home robots like Evolution Robotics' $249 Mint cleaner, the $399 Neato Robotics' XV-11 vacuum and Samsung's $600 Navibot.
The new iRobot navigation system, while not as advanced as the 3D-laser vision system on its military-issue SUGV robot, seems very similar to Evolution's NorthStar system, which uses a stationary emitter that projects infrared dots on a ceiling that the robot can detect and use to navigate. (Sort of like sailors of yore using the heavens, hence "NorthStar"). 
The iRobot system, dubbed "Celestial Navigation System for an Autonomous Robot," bounces IR or other signals from an emitter off of either a wall or a ceiling, which the robot then uses to triangulate its position at all times via an array of photodiode detectors on the top of the robot. The robot also makes a map of the room, and the system is seen as complimentary to existing bump and other sensors already on the Roomba.
One drawback, shared by the Mint: either you have to keep moving the emitter from room to room, or each room will have to have its own emitter. The patent envisions emitters in every room in the home, so iRobot will have to figure out a way to make sure they are ultra-cheap and unobtrusive. (An updated patent application shows iRobot has contemplated having the Roomba wirelessly power the emitters as it moves through the room via either RF or magnetoresonance energy so owners don't have to change batteries or plug them in).
The Neato's laser guidance system still seems to be superior on paper because it's entirely self-contained within the robot, and I'm still stunned that this startup managed to figure out laser navigation before iRobot. My guess is that iRobot's solution will require more computing horsepower than the NorthStar system, because NorthStar codes each IR dot with a location, and iRobot's solution requires the robot to calculate its position.
Roomba's algorithms are inefficient
The patent claims that the robot can head from room to room to room, and emitter to emitter to emitter, and remember its way back to the base station to recharge when it is running low on power (each emitter has a unique, coded IR signature; think smart breadcrumbs and Hansel and Gretel). Once it's juiced up, it remembers its way back to the room and the location where it left off.
Neato's XV-11 also claims to do this via its laser-mapping system, although some reviews suggest it isn't always successful. The Samsung Navibot also claims the same.
The patent, meanwhile, readily acknowledges the shortcomings of Roomba's existing randomized algorithms, bump sensors and IR sensors, "as they allow the robot to only recognize when objects are in its immediate vicinity."
Even systems that rely on IR patterns — presumably Northstar? — "are best employed in working spaces where few objects are present that may interfere with the dispersed patterns of infrared signals."
"These limitations of the above types of navigational systems are, at present, a hurdle to creating a highly independent autonomous robot, which can navigate in a complex environment. There is, therefore, a need for a navigational system for a robot that can allow the robot to operate autonomously within an environment that may be cluttered with a number of obstacles at or near the operational or ground level," the patent claims. 
Neato's laser-guided XV-11
So, what does all this navigation talk get you? Neato Robotics VP Patick De Neale laid out the advantages of smart navigation in a recent smackdown of Roomba
A smarter robot can clean in a fraction of the time (five times faster for Neato than Roomba), allowing a much more powerful vacuum (because you don't have to waste battery power on moving the robot around for an hour), more convenience for owners (because you don't have to wait as long for it to finish), more floor coverage in general, and start-stop capability to effectively allow an entire floor to be cleaned every day.
The patent also claims other benefits, such as the ability to remotely schedule via computer which rooms you want to clean. And in combination with Roomba's dirt-detection sensor (something Neato lacks), the robot can create a map for future use of higher-traffic areas that need more attention. (One of the complaints about the Neato is that it makes a single pass regardless of how much dirt is there when sometimes more passes are needed). The patent said the new Roomba guidance system may also map areas where it tends to get trapped and avoid them in future runs, while remembering that it needs to vacuum carpeted areas longer than bare floors.
The updated application also says that the new navigation system could go well beyond robotic vacuums and include "floor waxing and polishing, floor scrubbing (Scooba, anyone?), ice resurfacing, unfinished floor sanding, stain/paint application, ice melting and snow removal, grass-cutting, etc."
It's about time iRobot had a major upgrade of the Roomba, and here's hoping that they will do so at next year's CES. The company's Roomba line is still selling like hotcakes — and they told investors during their last quarter's conference call that they won't be able to make them fast enough to meet surging overseas demand until next year, when a new contract manufacturer in China comes on line. Here's hoping that a major new Roomba upgrade comes on line at the same time.
One caution to note, as I've been covering iRobot here since 2006 — a patent filing isn't the same as an intention to actually build something. They've previously filed for patents on a potty-trained Roomba, a square-front Roomba (like Neato's XV-11) and even an iRobot robotic lawnmower, and we're still waiting on those products to materialize. Even more worrisome — iRobot initially filed an application for this patent in 2004, although it appears to have been updated with filings in 2005 and 2009. The patent was published in April. 
With new concerns cropping up about the Neato XV-11's reliability, iRobot still has a chance to avoid being the Blackberry of smartphones — the established leader that sees its empire eclipsed through a lack of innovation — but they have to deliver, and soon.
You can read the whole patent in all its glory at the U.S. Patent Office website. The updated 2009 application, which contains several revisions, was also published in April 2010 and is located here.


Sean said...

Given the time since the patent filing, you've got to wonder if they are working on something better. Neato's real-world vacuum still uses a better technology than this patent. I wouldn't want to have to put a sensor in every room of my house. My kids would find and remove them in no time. Neato's vacuum has some drawbacks, including the need for magnetic tape to keep the vacuum out of areas, and the apparent bugs in its functionality, but such kinks can be worked out. I have read that Neato is already working on technology that will eliminate the need for the tape. If Neato can improve its reliability, work out the bugs, and allow the vacuum to recognize and selectively clean areas/rooms based on the consumers' preference, I can't imagine that roomba's solution would be a knock-out blow. Personally, I think that computer vision using simple stereo cameras for vision will be the ultimate solution, along the lines of the work that Irobot is doing with Tyzx. Humans don't need lasers to measure the precise distance to every object in a room to be able to navigate any environment with ease, and neither should a home robot. The solution to this perception/navigation problem will enable irobot and others to open up huge new market opportunities, including eventually robots that can do just about anything in the home.

thorn_stevens said...

That's possible, Sean, but if they had another technology in the works, I think they would have tried to either update their patent application with it or file a new one. It's possible they have filed something that remains under seal. My point is they don't have a lot of time to respond to the threat now that multiple competitors with intelligent mapping and cheap price points have emerged.