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Roomba advances robot intelligence with a model that can map your house and remember where it’s cleaned

The future of household robots owes a lot to 19th century American explorers Lewis and Clark.

At least, that’s what iRobot CEO Colin Angle told a crowd of reporters at a press event in New York on Sept. 16, introducing the Roomba 980, iRobot’s newest trashcan-lid-shaped vacuuming robot. It may look like every other Roomba the company has released over the past decade or so, but this one has a new trick: It knows how to map out its surroundings and find its way home.

“Roomba’s mission is to clean, which is not as exciting as Lewis and Clark,” Angle said, “But nonetheless very important.”

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Unlike its predecessors, which would zoom around a room cleaning the same spots a few times, the 980 remembers where it’s been. iRobot has used a similar system in its high-end Ava 500 telepresence robot, which uses laser radar like Google’s self-driving cars, but that costs $70,000 and looks creepy.

The Wifi-enabled 980 costs $800 and uses a combination of an optical sensor—like the one in your mouse that tracks where it is—and cameras to sense and remember its place in a room. As it putters about your house, it leaves itself a trail of digital breadcrumbs by beaming light out in multiple directions to orient itself.

The 980 lasts for about two hours on a single charge, but if through its mapping of your house it realizes that there’s still a lot more to clean before running out of power, it’ll return to its base, charge up, and finish the job. It can notice things like stairs, chair legs and carpets, adapting its suction as needed. According to iRobot, the 980 cleans twice as well as previous Roombas.

The Roomba 980, in eerie lighting.
The Roomba 980, in eerie lighting. (Quartz/Mike Murphy)

iRobot has also developed an app that lets users turn on the 980 wherever they are in their house. The app can also be used to schedule cleaning sessions, so the Roomba can go about its job while you’re out for the day. The app will tell you what the Roomba did while you were out, too—in case you’re not sure if it actually ran.

While this Roomba will appear to consumers to be much like every Roomba before it, the mapping technology on board hints at a grander future. iRobot told Quartz that the new Roomba doesn’t store the maps it makes—every time it finishes a clean, it wipes the maps—but future robots might hold onto the maps.

Angle spoke of a future Internet-of-Things-connected home, where Roombas (or other robots) are able to speak to other web-connected devices, and through their mapping technology, remember where those devices are, and potentially even interact with them. In the future, we may be able to ask an iRobot to go to the fridge—which it remembers from its map—and go get us a beer.

iRobot is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, having sold over 14 million Roombas—which Angle calls the “first practical home robot”—in the process. The company has produced robots that are used to diffuse bombs, that helped clean up the Fukushima disaster, and worked on some of the first Mars rovers.

Two years ago, Angle said a robot like the Jetsons’ Rosie was a fantasy, but at today’s event, he called Rosie the “promise” of the future. Perhaps the 980 is an early pioneer on the trail to robots that do more for us than clean.

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