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iRobot Is Enforcing Its Patent Portfolio (Again)

By Steve Symington - Apr 19, 2017 at 5:57PM

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The Roomba maker is calling out several big-name brands for violating its intellectual property.

When iRobot Corporation (IRBT -1.18%) delivered better-than-expected fourth-quarter 2016 results in February, founder and CEO Colin Angle noted his company's sales were strong "despite having the highest number of competitors we've ever seen."

But that doesn't mean the Roomba maker is willing to let those competitors clean up with its own technology. On Tuesday, iRobot announced it has filed legal proceedings for patent infringement against no fewer than 11 robotic vacuum manufacturers and sellers. Those competitors notably include Bissell Homecare, Hoover, Royal Appliance, Black & Decker, and China-based robotic-vacuum maker Shenzhen Silver Star, among others.

Judge holding a gavel

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but...

More specifically, iRobot is enforcing a total of six patents from its formidable IP portfolio with the United States International Trade Commission (ITC) and the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Those patents cover technologies ranging from robot obstacle-detection systems to multimode cleaning coverage, drive systems, bump and proximity sensors, remote-control scheduling and alert systems, and even the general physical design of its most popular floor-cleaning bots.

It's hard to blame iRobot for putting its foot down, considering that a cursory search for these competitors yields a slew of Roomba lookalikes. Take, for example, this image of iRobot's popular Roomba 650, and a competing Black & Decker model sold at several of the country's largest retailers:

Side-by-side comparison of iRobot and Black & Decker robotic vacuums

iRobot's Roomba 650 (left), and Black & Decker's BDH5000WM-4 robotic vacuum (right). IMAGE SOURCES: iRobot; Black & Decker.

To be fair, their striking physical similarities -- from the semicircle-shaped handle on top and removable cleaning bin in the rear, to the physical bumper and infrared sensor on the front -- don't guarantee iRobot's patents have been violated. It's up to the courts to make that determination.

But this also isn't the first time iRobot has moved to defend its turf. In 2007, the company won a lawsuit that effectively shut down RoboticFX, a business started by a former iRobot employee who used stolen trade secrets to create competing products. In 2011, iRobot reached a settlement with New Majestic S.p.A. over two patents in Italy. Then in 2013, iRobot filed a suit in Germany against five international competitors for violating five of its patents, in areas such as autonomous navigation and cleaning-schedule technology. Later that year, iRobot obtained preliminary injunctions (affirmed in 2014) in Germany, against the very same Shenzhen Silver Star listed in its latest complaint.

An honorable mention

Notably absent from iRobot's newest legal action is vacuum-industry titan Dyson, which recently introduced the high-priced, slick-looking Dyson 360 Eye robotic vacuum cleaner. But that shouldn't be terribly surprising. In 2014, iRobot's CFO Alison Dean offered several reasons the company wasn't worried about Dyson's entry into its niche. Dean also noted that -- although the 360 Eye wasn't commercially available at the time -- it appeared as though Dyson had, admirably, gone to great lengths in its novel design to avoid violating iRobot's patents.

Incidentally, iRobot's high-end Roomba 980 dominated the Dyson 360 Eye in a side-by-side comparison on Today's "Does It Work?" segment late last year. Dyson, for its part, admitted its $1,000 robot "has not been engineered to clean specific sections of the room," calling it primarily a "maintenance cleaner" at this stage. To be fair, you can be sure Dyson is working feverishly to iron out the kinks and present a better-performing option to consumers -- a task undoubtedly made more difficult by iRobot's enviable trove of patents.

In the meantime, iRobot has little choice but to call out other companies that have taken the lazy road by imitating its technology. In doing so, iRobot should only further solidify its leadership in this fast-growing industry.

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