The history of the Roomba

Nov 29, 2013

This month iRobot (irbt), the manufacturers of the Roomba, the robotic vacuuming system and cat-moving platform, introduced the Roomba 880 -- a souped-up model with rotating cylinders designed to literally chew up hair. The 880 boasts 50% more sucking power than previous models, which in the case of a vacuum is a good thing.

On the occasion of the latest Roomba release, we take look back at this curious company and the product that put it on the map. Take a spin with us down memory lane.

1990: iRobot founded

Three roboticists from MIT, Colin Angle, Helen Greiner, and Rodney Brooks, founded iRobot, a company dedicated to the development and manufacturing of military and domestic robots, in Delaware, Md. The company is now publicly traded and based in Bedford, Mass, with more than 500 employees in offices in Massachusetts, California, the U.K., Hong Kong, and China. In 2012, iRobot teamed up with InTouch Health to debut a telemedicine robot, the RP-VITA.

1990-2001: Military and research robots

In 1991, a year after the company's founding, Genghis -- a test platform intended for use by researchers -- was introduced. iRobot's next product, Ariel, a land and sea mine removal system, debuted in 1996.

2002: The Roomba is introduced

After more than a decade of offering military products, iRobot debuts its first domestic robot -- the Roomba. The Roomba is an autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner, though it is not the first: The Electrolux Trilobite hit the market a year before. By 2004, a million Roombas had been sold. It is suspected, though not confirmed, than an equal number of Rosie the Robot references had been made by the media.

2005: The Scooba is introduced

The Scooba, Roomba's moppy counterpart, hits stores in limited quantities; the following year would see a broader release of the floor-washing robot. In that same year, iRobot stock begins trading on the NASDAQ; the company's ticker symbol is IRBT.

2006: The Dirt Dog is introduced

The Dirt Dog, a robotic shop vac designed to clean up shop debris -- including hardware like nuts and bolts -- from garage and workshop floors, hits the market a year after the introduction of the Scooba. Sadly, the marvelously named product was discontinued in 2010.

2007: The Looj and Verro robots introduced

The continuing quest to robotize dreaded chores sees the introduction of gutter and pool cleaning versions of the Roomba, the Looj and Verro models. Unlike other iRobot products, the Looj does not operate autonomously but rather is user-operated by remote control.

In the same year, the iRobot Create is introduced for use by hobbyist roboticists. While explicitly intended for the development of robotics, the Create offered a platform on which Roomba hackers could experiment with everything from spirographs to musical instruments.

2008: The Roomba pet series is launched

And with it, a million YouTube videos of cats riding Roombas.

2010: Neato and Mint robot vacuums introduced

Serious competition to the Roomba arrives in the form of the Neato and the Mint robotic cleaning systems. The Mint robot vacuum, manufactured by Evolution Robotics, distinguishes itself by being more Swiffer than Hoover; the Neato could boast of more power (but less sensitivity) than the Roomba.

2012: iRobot buys Evolution Robotics

On the occasion of the Roomba's 10th birthday, iRobot ponied up $74 million to acquire the parent company behind the Mint robot, Evolution Robotics. Quite a generous birthday present, though the company had revenue in excess of $400 million for the year. In August of the following year, iRobot introduced a rebranded Mint robot sweeper under the name Braava.

September 2013: A court battle escalates

In an effort to protect its share of the $6 billion market for high-end vacuums -- defined as any unit costing more than $200 -- of which robotic systems account for 15%, iRobot takes legal action against its competitors. A German court grants iRobot a preliminary injunction against competitor Shenzhen Silver Star, the Chinese concern behind the MyGenie line of what are dubbed "intelligent floor vacuums," for patent infringement. In a dramatic turn, according to iRobot's own press release on the matter, MyGenies were seized from the floor of the IFA tech trade show in Berlin.

November 2013: The Roomba 880 Debuts

Just in time for the holiday season, the latest Roomba model carries a hefty price tag -- a whopping $699.99 -- that might deter otherwise eager buyers. Here's to hoping Santa feels extra generous this year.

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