Harken back to 2009 and consider this question: If you were to describe the robot vacuum experience in one word, what would it be? Erratic? Unhelpful? Dumb? Cats? All of these applied, as robot vacuums of the late 2000's just weren't all that good. Poor navigation was the biggest culprit of the issues that many people faced, as all robot vacuums at that point in time utilized bump-and-go navigation, which meant that the vacuum would drive straight until it ran into something, then make a left turn and drive straight until it hit something else.
This process was repeated ad nauseam until the vacuum either ran out of battery or got lost in a closet somewhere. About halfway through this decade, though, all of that changed with the advent of vacuums like the Neato Botvac Connected and the iRobot Roomba 980. Both of these vacuums played a large part in ushering in two important technologies that changed the concept of robot vacuums forever: intelligent navigation, and internet-connected features.
Seeing and knowing
I remember seeing the Neato Botvac Connected for the first time at IFA in the late summer of 2015. It blew my mind to see a robot vacuum that not only could actually see where it was going but one that you could control from your phone. The Internet of Things (IoT) wasn't nearly as common at this time as it is now, and controlling appliances such as a robot vacuum from a phone was a real game-changer. No longer did you have to remember to press the button on the vacuum before you left the house; now you could do it from anywhere via an app.
However, app control wasn't truly as groundbreaking as a robot vacuum that could visualize and map your house. Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, better known as SLAM, was a brand new algorithm that robot vacuums could use in conjunction with their fancy new laser-guided navigation systems or cameras to map your home as they vacuumed it. The results were magnificent, and finally made robot vacuums a viable replacement for a traditional vacuum.
The floorplans created by the SLAM algorithm were, in general, very accurate. They created an environment where robots no longer were literally blind to your home's layout. Rather, they were able to see furniture and chair legs, walls and doors, even the charging base. This allowed them to roam your house in an orderly, logical fashion, vacuuming in a grid-like pattern and then returning home to charge for future cleanings.
It wasn't always rosy
You've likely seen videos of cats riding on robot vacuums, sometimes wearing shark costumes, and seemingly enjoying the hum of the motor as it lulled them to sleep. Given how effective robot vacuums used to be, it's understandable to fall asleep when thinking about the results of the "clean" and the effort you still had to put in to manually vacuum your home. Robot vacuums used to suck (pun intended). They were a joke because they were extremely ineffective but, like any good product with a future, the bones of something amazing were there and waiting to be built upon.
Even those first few robot vacuums with SLAM enabled had serious limitations. Yes, the robot could map your home and plan an efficient, logical route through it without missing important spots, but why can't you see this map when it's done? Better yet, why can't you save this map and tell the robot to clean a specific spot in your home? The advent of SLAM and visual navigation was certainly groundbreaking, but it still felt like there were so many missed opportunities.
Just like the introduction of SLAM, visual navigation, and app connectivity changed the game. 2016 brought about another revolution in the robot vacuum world: clean maps. The company that we now know as Roborock partnered with the Chinese electronics giant Xiaomi to create the world's first robot vacuum that would actually show you where it was cleaning and had cleaned right from your smartphone. It didn't just map out the house and clean it in a logical fashion; you could watch the vacuum clean through the Mi Home app, and you could even see a detailed path that the robot took around your house.
This paved the way for features that we love using now, like per-room cleaning, zone cleaning, scheduled vacuuming, and even mopping on robots that support it. Many robot vacuums now allow you to highlight areas on your floorplan where the robot shouldn't ever clean, or you can create a temporary virtual wall to keep the robot out of certain sections of your home. All of this relies on the SLAM algorithm and visual navigation, which, when combined, create an accurate map that's saved in the robot's accompanying app and can be utilized at any time.
More than just a vacuum
While robot vacuums started out as just another way to vacuum your home, these products have turned into so much more than just vacuums. They really are full-fledged robots. Nowadays, you'll find that most robot vacuums can link up to your favorite virtual assistant and offer advanced scheduling options and powerful control methods that we couldn't even dream of 10 years ago. Asking your house to vacuum itself isn't just surreal, it's a good look into what the future will be like.
I've used just about every major robot vacuum in the past five years and can attest that it has almost completely removed the need for me to manually vacuum at all.
Connecting it with your smart home is a vital part of what will continue to make these smart, connected robots more prominent in people's lives as well. Recent advancements in routines for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa mean it's easier than ever to work cleaning into your routine, especially since you can now have a robot do the job for you.
Robot vacuums have also expanded their abilities in many useful ways over the years. iRobot's Roomba i7+ and Roomba s9+ come with a special charging base that has its own large bag inside as well as a suction motor that will automatically empty your robot vacuum and store up to 30 vacuum dustbins worth of debris and pet hair. Robots from companies like Roborock and ECOVACS sport mop attachments, and Roborock's latest S5 Max vacuum let you customize cleaning settings per room, giving you more customization options than ever.
I'm a clean freak, and I love my robot vacuums. I've used just about every major robot vacuum in the past five years and can attest that it has almost completely removed the need for me to manually vacuum at all. Of course, I still keep my old vacuum around for the occasional odd job that would be impossible for a robot to clean (i.e. breaking a coffee mug inside a kitchen cabinet and needing to vacuum up the tiny bits). Since using robot vacuums on a daily basis, my house is cleaner and tidier than ever.
It's easy to run the vacuum regularly or just tell it to clean up the kitchen after I've finished cooking, or under the table after my 5-year-old is done making a mess after eating. Thanks to all the improvements in just the past few years, robot vacuums are finally worth owning and integrating into our lives, just like any good technology. Let's just hope the robots don't turn out to be our overlords.