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Meet iRobot Corporation's Smartest -- and Most Expensive -- Roomba Yet

By Steve Symington - Sep 17, 2015 at 8:29AM

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Packed with new features for the smart home, the Roomba 980 comes with a steep price tag.

iRobot Roomba 980, smart home, robotic vacuum

iRobot Corporation's Roomba 980 features Wi-Fi and visual navigation. Credit: iRobot

iRobot Corporation (IRBT 1.80%) just unveiled its latest and greatest Roomba, and it's packed with impressive new features. But if you want to put this new high-tech device in charge of cleaning your home, it'll cost you.

Meet iRobot's Roomba 980, an $899 robotic vacuum that's arguably smarter than any other. By comparison, the previous top-of-the-line Roomba 880 was unveiled in late 2013 with a suggested retail price of $699.

Wi-Fi and cameras and maps ... Oh my!
But the new bot has plenty of new tech to back up that price. According to iRobot, the Roomba 980 is the first Roomba to incorporate "adaptive navigation with visual localization." Notice the small camera built into the top, allowing it to visually map and navigate your home. By contrast, previous Roombas relied on a combination of physical bumpers, infrared, and acoustic sensors to traverse their surroundings.

Specifically, with the help of the camera Roomba 980 creates visual reference points in each room, building a map of the home as it runs, while also enabling it to "remember" where it's been and what remains to be cleaned. Using that map, Roomba 980 can periodically return to its charging base as needed, then pick up where it left off until the entire level of the home is clean. It also features a new mode iRobot has dubbed "Carpet Boost," through which the unit can automatically detect carpet or rugs, and temporarily increase power to the motor to provide twice the cleaning power. And of course, it features the same brush-less, tangle free AeroForce cleaning system originally introduced in the Roomba 880.

And for those of you annoyed by the seemingly random cleaning paths utilized by its predecessors, Roomba 980 tackles open areas in neat, parallel lines, adjusting its pattern to adapt to obstacles on the fly. Here's a look from iRobot at the new charging, mapping, and navigation capabilities:

What's more, Roomba 980 features Wi-Fi, making it iRobot Corporation's first cloud-connected consumer robot, while also allowing users to connect, manage, and monitor it through iRobot's new HOME App.

Perhaps most tantalizing for tech enthusiasts and investors alike, iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle teased "Leveraging the cloud and mapping technologies, robots gain a better understanding of their environment and customers are provided with more control. Looking ahead, these technologies will also enable expanded capabilities for connected robots in the smart home."

The writing on the wall
But this isn't a big surprise. Early this year, Angle stated 2015 would be an "important year" for iRobot as it would soon monetize investments it has made in "crucial robotic technology," including cloud integration and visual navigation. In doing so, Angle said iRobot Corporation aims to move "from a leader in the robot vacuum cleaner market to a technology company developing navigation connected devices for the home."

Then in July, Angle told investors iRobot Corporation was hard at work integrating "next-generation mapping navigation technology more broadly into our home products," and -- without providing much detail -- further promised it would launch a "long-anticipated navigating home robot" before the end of the year.

Finally, only a few weeks ago iRobot caught my attention by offering a rare 15% discount on its Roomba 800 series vacuums, good through September 12, 2015. This led me to conclude that iRobot would likely be launching a new Roomba just as it did on Wednesday, which happened to mark the 13th anniversary since iRobot introduced its first Roomba on September 16, 2002.

Don't get too excited -- yet
Keep in mind, however, the Roomba 980 likely won't result in incremental revenue or earnings gains for iRobot this year. During last quarter's call, Angle stated anticipated sales from the launch were already included in iRobot's existing full-year guidance. I would be surprised, then, if iRobot Corporation stock makes any significant moves tomorrow in response to today's news.

For now, investors would be wise to keep a close eye for updates on initial Roomba 980 sales when iRobot reports third-quarter 2015 results next month. Given its high price point, it remains to be seen whether consumers will react positively to the product even given its slick new suite of features. Per Angle's comments earlier this year, I'll also be listening for any new information on future "navigation connected devices for the home."

In the end, though, and as a longtime iRobot Corporation investor myself, it's great to see the company finally rolling out exciting new technology that will almost certainly dictate iRobot's future direction. If Roomba 980 proves a success, it truly could signal the beginning of a new era for iRobot.

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