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IRobot launches new software platform aimed at making its robots smarter

Bedford tech company looks to build customer loyalty amid a pandemic home-cleaning boom

In this Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, photo, iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle is illuminated in blue-green light while holding a Roomba vacuum in a hallway decorated in patents the company owns, at their headquarters in Bedford. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
In this Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, photo, iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle is illuminated in blue-green light while holding a Roomba vacuum in a hallway decorated in patents the company owns, at their headquarters in Bedford. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)Charles Krupa/Associated Press

IRobot’s product launches normally focus on shiny new machines designed to scuttle around your rug or floor, cleaning up debris. But this latest launch is different: It focuses on the brains behind those machines.

The Bedford company is unveiling on Tuesday a new software platform called iRobot Genius, accessible via a new mobile app for all of the company’s Wi-Fi connected cleaning robots. The software will help the robots figure out zones where cleaning is most needed, such as around the kitchen table or the couch. They’ll also be able to figure out which time of day the house needs to be cleaned, and sync up with other devices that can signal when the owners are leaving or coming home.

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Chief executive Colin Angle said this is the first time the company has done a software launch of this scale.

Angle and his 1,200-plus employees have good reasons for making their robots smarter. They face serious competition on their turf, particularly from rivals that specialize in lower-cost robot cleaners, including the likes of Needham-based Shark Ninja. And demand for cleaning robots has been soaring since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic amid all the work and school being done at home. Revenue, for example, rose year-over-year at iRobot by 8 percent in the three-month period that ended in June, and its stock price is up more than 50 percent so far this year as investors placed bets on the duration of this home-cleaning boom.

“Simply being at home creates more mess,” Angle said. “If you had kids, you basically had no time to breathe, much less clean. The proposition of a robot vacuum cleaner sounds pretty good in those kinds of environments.”

Angle said customers are asking for smarter features for their Roomba vacuums and Braava jet mops. In particular, they’re looking for their robots to take a more personalized approach to their tasks, to better match the rhythms of daily life.

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“This idea that robot intelligence equaled autonomy was wrong,” Angle said. “The next stage … has to do with collaboration and being a good partner.”

Angle has been eager to find ways to plug his robots into the “connected home” (aka the “smart home”) for several years. The company’s higher-end robots can actually map out a floor in your house. Toward that end, the vast majority of new hires that the company has made in the past three years were software engineers.

Consumers don’t need to pay to receive the extra level of intelligence in the new software. Instead, it’s available for free to all customers with Wi-Fi connected robots, via a software update. The company hopes that by smartening up its machines, it can hold on to its position as the dominant seller of cleaning robots across the globe.

“It is about driving loyalty,” Angle said. “Our monetization strategy is not through charging you money. It’s through creating a longer collaboration, both in cleaning but also in selling you the things you need to clean.”



Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.