It's been almost 13 years since iRobot Corporation (IRBT) released its first Roomba robotic vacuum. And thanks to a favorable ruling from the Federal Communications Commission this month, the innovative robotics company could soon play a bigger role outside your home.
Of course, because Roomba comprises the vast majority of iRobot's revenue, it's easy to forget the company already number of other home robots to tackle chores like floor sweeping, gutter cleaning, and pool maintenance. And we also know it's capable of building rugged outdoor robots for the military; less than two weeks ago, the company announced a $4 million order from the U.S. Navy for 110 throwable FirstLook robots and accessories.
But now, the FCC has granted iRobot technical clearance to build and sell a robotic lawn mower in the United States.
One gate opens ...
The path to approval wasn't easy. Though iRobot has patents on robotic lawn mower technology dating as far back as 2007, it had to request a waiver earlier this year to FCC regulations prohibiting operation of certain fixed outdoor wireless infrastructure. That request was later formally opposed by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, or NRAO, in West Virginia, which claimed iRobot's beacons could cause harmful interference to sensitive radio telescopes used to study the stars.
To iRobot's credit, it specifically explained in its initial application why the potential for disruption to the Radio Astronomy Service was minimal, and even responded to the NRAO's subsequent challenges with point-by-point rebuttals of its claims.
Ultimately, however, the FCC states the "underlying purpose" of its prohibition is "preventing the establishment of fixed wireless communications networks over wide areas" -- something the proposed design of iRobot's robotic lawn mower "will not (and cannot) create."
What's more, the FCC agreed iRobot's system design "incorporates practical measures [...] appropriate for protecting the non-allocated radio astronomy service from harmful interference." Finally, the FCC recognized iRobot's claim that its robotic lawn mower "has the potential for reducing deaths and injuries, reducing emissions and noise pollution, and improving the quality of life related to residential lawn mowing."
As a result, iRobot is now clear to use wireless beacons no taller than 24 inches to guide its robotic lawn mowers for residential purposes, much in the same way its "lighthouse" and "virtual wall" beacons aid current Roomba models in their cleaning duties. Current robotic lawn mowers in the U.S. require buried wire fences to establish physical boundaries, representing a cumbersome, expensive process that has so far greatly limited adoption of the promising technology.
Don't get too excited ... yet
That's not to say iRobot will make robotic lawn mowers ubiquitous overnight. On one hand, for example, revenue from robotic vacuums currently comprises only 15% of global vacuum sales. On the other hand, according to iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle earlier this year, that's roughly the same market share held by other now-common household appliances around the same stage in their respective release cycles (10 to 15 years following introduction), including the microwave and dishwasher. It will almost certainly be a matter of years, then, before robotic lawnmowers can make a similar claim.
But in the meantime, investors can look as an early example to Europe, where robotic lawn mowers already represented a roughly $200 million market last year. Keeping in mind iRobot's current guidance calls for total 2015 revenue of $625 million to $635 million, even securing a small slice of this growing global market could represent a significant opportunity for incremental revenue.
For now, however, iRobot's lawn mower remains in the early stages, so investors shouldn't get terribly excited over the near-term implications it might have on iRobot's business. Rather, more important right now is iRobot's impending launch of another new robot featuring cutting-edge navigating and mapping technology, which Angle recently promised will "move us from a leader in the robotic vacuum cleaner market to a technology company developing navigation connected devices for the home."
If one thing is sure in the end, it's that iRobot is continually striving to make our lives easier by letting its products tackle mundane, time consuming tasks. As a longtime investor myself, I'm still more than happy to hold my shares of iRobot as the number of those tasks continues to grow.