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Friday, November 12, 2010

Robot Cleaning 2010 - from gadget to appliance?

Ten years after that the first home cleaning robot - the Trilobite 1.0. - of Swedish Electrolux became commercially available as a mass product, a new generation of cleaning robots has been launched 2010 promising clean floors and time saving. Home robotics is cool again and growth expectations are high. In 2001 Trilobite 1.0 was an expensive US$ 2000 gadget but also a milestone in the history of cleaning robotics. It opened the market for many other companies such as iRobot (2002), Kärcher (2004), Sharper Image (2004) Hanool (2005), Yujin (2005) etc. 
According to the robotics bible "Handbook of Robotics" published in 2008 the market size for full-size household vacuum cleaners in the US was estimated to be close to 20 million units in 2003. The ratio between domestic cleaning robots sold worldwide from 2002 to 2006 and regular vacuum cleaners sold only in the U.S. during the same time was 1:40. Conservatively estimated, this ratio may be around 1:400 or worse worldwide. Given these figures domestic cleaning robots still seem to be considered to be gadgets rather than appliances." (Handbook of Robotics 2008, page 1279).
Shenzhen Silver Star Intelligent Electronic Ltd
Two years later the IFR Service Robotics 2010 study estimates 5.6 million units for domestic use have been sold up to end of 2009, most of these are cleaning robots. IFR statistics claim about one million vacuum cleaning robots sold in 2009, 7% fewer than in 2008. With an average price of US $400 per unit the cleaning robot market may be valued US $400 million in 2009. A forecast of WinterGreen Research for 2016 anticipates cleaning robot sales of US$ 2 billion in 2016, which means 4 million cleaning robots worldwide. Well, compared to smart phones that sell in millions, cleaning robots still have problems to attract the masses. Apple sold 1 million iPhones in 74 days and 1.7 million iPhone 4 units for the first three days the device was available to customers.
Today there are at least 20 brands and 100 different models of cleaning robots on the market in the price range US$ 69 to US$ 1500. American iRobot is the leader with more than 5 million Roomba robots sold in 10 years.
Image: GRB/Infonaut Cleaning Robots 2010. (Click image to enlarge)

But there are many competitors around the corner. New features such as anti-cliff sensors, side brushes, UV light, built in fragrant compartment for deodorizing, washable filters, scheduling etc. have been introduced in the last 10 years. New navigation technologies have been recently implemented by companies like Neato Robotics, Evolution Robotics, Samsung and LG. New entrants like Taiwanese electronic giants ASUS and MSI have identified home robotics as a post-netbook growth market. Chinese manufacturers offer already 50+ different models. The image above shows a selection of cleaning robots from only one of these companies, which can supply 50,000 sets per month each.

Philips FC9910/01 HomeRun
Prices are falling, but so do product and service quality. A look into user forums shows a mixed picture of happy and angry owners of robot cleaners. When the market is flooded with low priced vacuum cleaner robots from Asia, the number of frustrated consumers increases and so do the electronics rubbish tips. Electronic giant Philips seems to see opportunities for advanced models and has decided to make a late entry with the brand new Homerun FC9910/01 cleaning robot, equipped with an integrated camera, 14 infrared sensors, USB port and with scalable software which allows it to create mappable grids for effective cleaning. On a 3 hour charge it offers 100 minutes of cleaning. Sales of Homerun starts in France priced at 700 Euros ($ 885). 2011 will show if cleaning robots have grown up to be accepted as useful cleaning appliances or if they are still funny gadgets for some million robot nerds.

Grant Cleaning Robots Challenge 2012?
The First International Contest for Autonomous Cleaning Robots took place on October 1-3, 2002, in Lausanne, Switzerland at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne. The general objective of this contest was to bring together representatives from the cleaning industry and appliance manufacturers as well as young researchers, future customers and users, and draw their attention to an emerging technology. The goal was to clean within 10 minutes a 5 x 5 m sugar covered room as good as possible. Of total 12 teams the winner of the competition was the Czech team with robot Berta. 2012 would be a great opportunity to challenge the robotics industry with a "Grant Cleaning Challenge" for cleaning robots under the rule of professional cleaning criteria and real consumer demands. If cleaning robots want to invade peoples homes they have to be better, cheaper and greener than traditional vacuum cleaners. If they aren´t, they may have trubble to survive. 

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