The primary task of robotic vacuum cleaners might seem pretty straightforward -- to navigate any given room and clean up the mess -- but it turns out that's easier said than done. And to the benefit of home robotics specialist iRobot Corporation (NASDAQ:IRBT), the folks at Dyson are learning the hard way right now.
In an effort to compare the latest and greatest high-end robotic vacuums last week, the Rossen Reports team over at Today featured both the Dyson 360 Eye and iRobot's Roomba 980 in their "Does It Work?" special series.
The team scattered dirt, cereal, and a bag of pet hair throughout a living room featuring multiple everyday obstacles and floor types -- including on hardwood, carpet, and a tasseled rug; under a couch; and in hard-to-reach corners. Then they separately let each robot loose to clean up the identical mess.
A tale of two cleaning cycles
"Both robots left the room cleaner," the show hints, "but one 'faulted' and stopped multiple times while the other did not."
Of course, you can probably guess which robot fell short. But see for yourself:
Sure enough, while Dyson's 360 Eye left the room cleaner than it started, the test team ultimately called its cleaning task off after five hours (including two hours of mandatory charging) as the robot faulted no less than 12 times, requiring the team to repeatedly reset it as it got stuck on things such as small ledges, rug tassels, and the thick carpet edge. The 360 Eye was also too tall to clean under the couch and didn't effectively reach the dirt in the corner.
By contrast, iRobot's Roomba 980 completed its cleaning cycle with zero faults in just under three hours (including a single recharge), cleaning under the couch, up on the ledge, and removing nearly all the dirt in the corner. That said, while the Roomba didn't get stuck on the rug tassels -- thanks to a patented anti-tangle system that senses such snags and automatically frees the robot -- it mostly pushed the small rug around the room so didn't collect the hair there.
Following the tests, Today also followed up with both companies. Dyson responded, "At this stage, [the 360 Eye] has not been engineered to clean specific sections of the room, including designated spillage." Further, with the caveat that they're continuing to improve the $1,000 robotic vacuum, Dyson refers to the $360 Eye as primarily a "maintenance cleaner" and suggests users "tuck away carpet fringes [and] generally clear the floor area" before using it.
Meanwhile, reflecting on its comparatively successful test, iRobot responded simply that the Roomba 980 is its "most advanced and effective robot vacuum to date."
To be fair, iRobot introduced its first Roomba model more than 14 years ago and has sold millions upon millions of units as it improved each subsequent model. Meanwhile, Dyson only just released its 360 Eye in Japan last October, followed by launches in both the U.S. and U.K. this past summer.
But even putting aside Dyson's relative inexperience, this outcome shouldn't come as a complete surprise. In fact, almost exactly two years ago, iRobot CFO Alison Dean piqued my interest when she outlined three reasons iRobot wasn't worried about Dyson's impending entry into its niche.
First, Dyson's move was a long time coming. "This is something we expected," Dean stated, as Dyson had been vocal about working on a robotic vacuum cleaner and even touted the fact it had spent 16 years and $47 million designing the 360 Eye. That's all well and good, but as I pointed out early last year, we should also note iRobot was already spending nearly twice as much every single year on research and development to improve its own home-robot products.
Second, Dean suggested while Dyson indeed has significant resources to pour into sales and marketing -- including its claim that the 360 Eye has twice the suction of any other robotic vacuum -- she also noted "It's not all about suction; there are a lot of other things that allow the product to clean effectively."
More specifically, much of Dyson's effort to essentially miniaturize its popular "cyclone" technology required significant battery power and an unusually tall product -- both shortcomings that reared their ugly heads in Today's test. That's also not to mention iRobot's tangle-free brushless design, which uses rubberized rollers rather than traditional brushes, and carpet-boost to adjust power as it senses floor-type changes.
Third, Dean noted that iRobot actually viewed Dyson's entry into the robotic vacuum market as clear validation for the direction of the industry:
[W]hen a leading upright vacuum cleaner developer is moving toward our space, it's a positive indicator for the space. Dyson's CEO was actually quoted as saying the future of vacuum cleaning is a handheld and a robotic vacuum cleaner. So if that's not good for our space and our business, I don't know what is.
So perhaps that -- the vision of combining a handheld with a robot vacuum -- is why Dyson is still calling the 360 Eye a "maintenance cleaner." But in any case, while you can bet Dyson will strive to bring the 360 Eye up to par with the Roomba 980 as soon as possible, iRobot appears to be clear winner of this battle so far.
Steve Symington owns shares of iRobot. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends iRobot. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.