ROBOTIC vacuum cleaners, generally, are not news. Electronics companies such as iRobot, LG and Neato Robotics already make their own versions. Yet even the best on the market offer enormous scope for improvement—and the worst little in the way of suction power. Last September Consumer Reports, an American magazine, even warned purchasers to think twice about buying one. But on September 4th, Dyson, a company famous for its bagless vacuum cleaners, announced in Tokyo that it was launching its first robotic model, the Dyson 360 Eye. It will be available in Japan from early next year.
Dyson has so far remained firmly out of the robotic market, despite 16 years of research in the area. It came close to launching a robotic vacuum cleaner in 2001, but the company pulled the device from production at the last moment. James Dyson, the firm's founder, decided the model was too expensive and heavy to be of interest to most consumers. But since then the company has improved the power output of its robotic cleaner and has reduced the size of its motors and other components. The firm has also managed to marry new technology with academic expertise, by working with researchers at Imperial College London. The final result is a cleaner that Dyson says has more suction power than any other robotic vacuum on the market.
The sleek device has a number of innovations that, Dyson claims, put it far ahead of its competitors. Its vision system, with a 360° panoramic camera, allows it to see where it has cleaned in a room and what it has left to do, unlike its competitors which roam about in a seemingly random fashion in the hope that they will eventually cover the entire floor. This means it can clean a given area much faster by prioritising the places it has not yet covered. It also has tank tracks, rather than wheels, which allow it to climb rugs and small obstacles such as carpet edges (see picture). There is even an app to activate the device remotely.
As a result, the Eye is likely to be an expensive, high-end product. This will limit its sales in many places, where the market for vacuum cleaners is ruthlessly price competitive. But the technology-mad Japanese, with their tiny apartments, are likely to be keen. Moreover, if consumers agree that Dyson has managed to create an exceptionally good robotic vacuum, it could expand the market in America—a country which has so far shown limited interest in domestic robots. And even if the new model fails to produce much in the form of direct profits, the smart little device may whip up a storm of interest which will help Dyson promote its other household appliances, such as cyclone vacuum cleaners, washing machines and heaters. But Dyson will be hoping for more than just a whirlwind of publicity: it hopes the Eye will wipe the floor with the competition.