Roomba Turns 11: Where Should iRobot Go From Here?

Way back in September 16, 2002, iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT  ) launched the first version of its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners.

Eleven years and more than 10 million home robots later, on Monday iRobot marked the occasion by offering shoppers free shipping and a free "replenishment kit" (think extra brushes, filters, and the like) with any Roomba purchase.


Image source: iRobot.

Of course, these types of promotions are fairly commonplace for iRobot, which has spread its wings in the consumer space over the past few years to build robots meant for pool cleaning, floor washing, floor mopping, and even gutter maintenance.

However, the occasion still made me think: Eleven years is a long time, right?

After all, while the Roomba has quietly evolved over the first decade of its life to boast relatively subtle features like better battery life, improved filters, larger dirt compartments, and smarter antonymous navigation capabilities, its outward appearance and end-purpose have largely remained unchanged.

 

First-generation Roomba (right), current Roomba 760 (left), Image sources, Wikipedia, iRobot

What's more, as the Roomba becomes more prominent overseas, iRobot finds itself facing an increasingly common threat from copycat businesses with a penchant for violating commonly accepted intellectual property rules.

And as I pointed out in April, legitimate competitors like Northrop Grumman  (NYSE: NOC  ) are working hard to oust iRobot from its leadership position for military-centric offerings. Northrop's recently launched CUTLASS unmanned ground vehicle, for example, utilizes a six-wheel design and three-fingered gripper, which the defense juggernaut claims makes it more versatile and dexterous than any other UGV in its class.

Then again, I also noted that iRobot's comparably sized Warrior bot is faster, lifts heavier objects, and can use its treaded design to right itself when flipped, but you can bet both companies are working feverishly to raise the bar in pursuit of the perfect military robot going forward.

Even so, I wasn't particularly surprised when many investors, including fellow Fool Rich Smith, began highlighting the opinion that iRobot simply needs to start building better robots to maintain its edge.

But in an interview with The Verge earlier this year, iRobot CEO Colin Angle made it very clear iRobot has every intention of doing just that.

In fact, when asked what the next step for home robotics might be, Angle himself admitted, "In the home ultimately, what we'll see is the robots like Roomba slowly disappearing. They'll still be there, but you'll have to do less and less to maintain them."

Now don't get me wrong. The Roomba should be around for quite some time yet and has plenty of growing left to do, but here are a few ways iRobot is working on differentiating itself over the long term.

Opening doors through telepresence
To be sure, iRobot is currently making waves delving into the world of telepresence with its Ava robotics platform, through which it has not only infiltrated dozens of hospitals in the U.S. and Mexico with the RP-VITA, but also more recently partnered with Cisco to win the business of enterprise clients with its Ava 500 robots.

As Angle said when they introduced RP-VITA last year, "If we can survive and be cleared to operate in that most challenging environment, that will open the door to many other environments."

Down the road, as Angle also stated in the aforementioned interview, once Ava's ability to better understand its surrounding physical environment matures, he envisions the platform ultimately becoming a sort of "robotic butler" in the home with the primary goal of helping people "age independently."

When will that happen? Angle wasn't willing to assign a hard timeline, but did say "Over the next ten years, we'll see the price go down and down, and I won't predict exactly what the date is, but it certainly is rapidly approaching."

Video navigation
Next, recall iRobot's acquisition of Evolution Robotics late last year, which most recently resulted in the company's new branded line of floor sweeping and mopping robots, dubbed "Braava." 

But in addition to the Braava, many investors forget with the acquisition also came notable intellectual property rights, including Evolution Robotics' stable of industry leading visual navigation and simultaneous location and mapping technologies.

Translation? Don't be surprised if iRobot soon announces the incorporation of inexpensive cameras in their robotic solutions, which will in effect allow their robots to rely less on physical bumpers and infrared sensors to navigate their surroundings. Instead -- or perhaps in addition -- the machines will be able to use video feeds to streamline their navigation efforts.

Stair-climbing robots... in your home
Finally, if iRobot wants Angle's robotic butler dream to come to fruition, you can bet it would involve creating a way for its home robots to climb stairs.

That said, some of iRobot's military bots have already tackled that task, including its Warrior, PackBot, and the 29-pound SUGV robots. As it stands, the Roomba has nifty cliff sensors that prevent it from falling down the stairs, but the real challenge would be to create one that could gently navigate residential staircases to perform tasks on all levels of your home.

Curiously enough, if you do a little digging you'll see way back in the year 2000, iRobot was already offering a stair-climbing home robot called the iRobot LE, which could be used to remotely monitor your home or communicate with loved ones while you're away through a Wi-Fi connection.

iRobot LE. Image source: iRobot.

However, at the steep price of roughly $4,995, they understandably didn't fly off the shelves. 

Foolish takeaway
Of course, that was long before iRobot went public in 2005, and investors can be thankful Angle is now intelligently building his business by taking things one step at a time, saying the company is now focused on the need to "pick applications that have real concrete value to customers, deliver on or exceed their expectations, and move on."

Regardless of what people might hope, however, that's a process that will likely take years for the desired results to materialize, so don't expect iRobot to take off overnight.

In the end, though, I'm still pleased with the company's methodical growth, and this long-term focus is one of the very things that made me love iRobot from an investment perspective in the first place. That's why, as long as the existing consumer business remains intact over the next few years, I still don't plan on parting with my shares anytime in the near future.

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