Home >technology >gadgets >Robotic cleaners make their way into homes

Around Diwali last year, Rajat Upadhyaya, 35, finally decided to buy a gadget that had piqued his interest back in 2008 when he was in the US—the home-cleaning “robot" called Roomba from iRobot Corporation, an American company founded in 1990 by three Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates who designed robots for space exploration and military defence.

Since its launch in 2002, the Roomba has developed quite a cult following around the world, and has even got a pop-culture footprint, with appearances in shows like Saturday Night Live, Arrested Development, and, memorably, one episode of Breaking Bad in which it actually acts as a plot device.

While the interest in robotic vacuum cleaners is currently high more because of novelty value than need, the category is growing in terms of numbers too. “On Amazon.in, we offer over 100 products and accessories from over 20 brands under the ‘robotic home cleaners’ category. We launched this category in 2015, and, in 2017, it has grown two times by volume over 2016," said an Amazon India spokesperson on email. Worldwide, the residential robotic vacuum cleaner market is slated to grow by over 15% between 2017 and 2021, according to a report by trade publication Research And Markets.

“Acceptance of new technology is pretty high in India, but the challenge is to change the mindset from traditional ways of cleaning. In India, people are used to cleaning their floors every day, and they like to do both dry sweeping and wet mopping. We have to show them how this can be done effortlessly," says Pulak Satish Kumar, chief operating officer of Puresight Systems Pvt. Ltd, the exclusive distributor of iRobot products in India.

The model Upadhyaya got on Amazon.in, the Roomba 980, is one of the latest models of the device available in India. A wireless device, the Roomba comes with a built-in camera and sensors that help it map and navigate your home, cleaning clutter around and under furniture on a single charge for up to 2 hours, after which it goes back to its docking station for charging.

“After a few trial runs, navigating around the space it cleans becomes a pretty seamless process," says Upadhyaya, who describes the early days of using the Roomba as “something like owning a pet". “It was quite fascinating to watch it at work. But now we usually schedule it to do the cleaning when no one is at home, mostly during afternoons. If there’s a problem, I get a notification on the Roomba app on my phone," he adds. The iRobot Home App lets users preset the device to clean on a schedule, choose custom-cleaning preferences, and also provides status monitoring and app-based support.

Upadhyaya, a former vice-president, engineering, at Urban Ladder who is currently senior vice-president, engineering, with a US-based start-up, lives in a joint family of six in Bengaluru. He says they have been using the gadget every alternate day for over six months now, and don’t feel the need to employ a domestic help to clean the house. In fact, he had also bought an iRobot Braava, a “wet cleaning" robot, along with the Roomba, but says it’s not necessary to do wet cleaning/mopping every day with the Roomba because its vacuuming action picks up dust far more efficiently than brooms or dusters.

Shivani Das, a 42-year-old former teacher, has been using a robotic vacuum cleaner from the Indian company Milagrow for five years. The purchase was inspired by a friend’s experience with her US-bought device. At the time, Das and her family were moving from Delhi to Mumbai, where she was uncertain of finding reliable help.

Unlike the Roomba, the Milagrow Redhawk that she uses has both dry and wet cleaning capabilities, though Das says she doesn’t need to use the mopping function every day. “Initially, even after getting the Redhawk, I had employed a maid, but I realized the device was actually doing a much better job," she says. “Since it sucks up all the dust and dirt from the floor effectively, the frequency of having to dust other surfaces has also come down." The unit comes with self-docking and self-charging features (it goes to the charging dock when the battery is lower than 15%), and can be controlled through remote control, which can also be used to schedule the device for a specific time every day or a specific day of the week.

These units can work on any kind of floors—tiles, carpeting, marble, mosaic, wood. Cleaning the dustbag is a simple process. It is an attachment below the machine that comes off easily, usually with the press of a clip or button. Depending on the frequency of use and amount of dust, etc., the dustbag might need to be emptied after every use, and the filters should be taken out every week and cleaned by tapping them against a hard surface, such as the edge of a dustbin.

Higher-end products from Milagrow also come with a “live 3D mapping" function, which allows the device to build 3D maps on the user’s mobile app in real time and lets the user plan the cleaning process. Its latest robot also has a memory function, which ensures that in case it runs out of charge during the cleaning, it not only recharges on its own but resumes cleaning from the point it left off.

The bigger brands are in a race to see who can equip their bots with more technology. The top-end models (which cost Rs40,000-70,000) can connect to your home Wi-Fi, and have Internet of Things (IoT) and voice-control features—iRobot’s 900 series comes with Alexa/Amazon Echo integration, while Milagrow’s AguaBot 7.0 can be connected with Alexa and Google Voice.

The increasing popularity and proliferation of smart-home devices—from smart lighting to IoT integration with refrigerators, washing machines and smart speakers like the Google Home and Amazon Echo—will provide a boost to the robotic home cleaning category, says Kumar of Puresight. “In my house now, Alexa manages Roomba and lets me know when the work is done. On my phone app, I have a map of my house, which allows me to control which areas need more attention," says Kumar.

The higher price tags on these devices may be putting them out of most people’s reach, or deterring first-time users who are not sure if investing in this gadget will make life easier for them. However, there are a number of brands available online—such as Exilient, iLife, Eufy, and Wizzit—at much lower price points than the latest models of Roomba and Milagrow robots, and these may appeal to new users.

Although the biggest markets for these gadgets are cities such as Bengaluru, Mumbai and the National Capital Region, there is interest from tier 2 cities like Ahmedabad, Coimbatore and Trichy as well, says Rajeev Karwal, founder and chief executive officer of Milagrow. “In fact, our first customer was from Kolhapur. He bought three units," he says .

Karwal blames earlier marketers of vacuum cleaners for the low penetration of these devices in India; they made the category a “closet product"—a novelty item to be taken out occasionally. “The industry never took off. They did not experiment with wet and dry because they didn’t realize how important wet cleaning was to Indians, never mind that vacuuming is far superior to manual brooming in the efficiency of picking up dust. It’s a mindset issue and will take years to change," says Karwal.

Das says it’s a “joy" to watch her device do its job and go back to its docking station “like a well-trained dog". “I wish my mobile phone would charge itself," she says with a laugh.

Some robotic cleaners available in the market:

iRobot Roomba 980 has a three-stage cleaning system.
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iRobot Roomba 980 has a three-stage cleaning system.

iRobot Roomba 980
Price: Rs69,900

The Roomba 980 uses dual-counter rotating AeroForce Extractors, which enhance the ability to brush and clean dirt from tricky surfaces such as carpets. This has a three-stage cleaning system. When it notices a carpet or a rug, cleaning power is boosted by up to 10 times. The iRobot Home app (free for Android and iOS) offers the cleaning status, an analysis of areas where dirt was detected, and more.

Milagrow Spaze AI has a 650ml water tank with water speed control.
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Milagrow Spaze AI has a 650ml water tank with water speed control.

Milagrow Spaze AI
Price: Rs37,990

This harnesses the capabilities of Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant as well as Google’s Assistant—it can be controlled via voice commands, including in Hindi, if you use Google Assistant. It has a 650ml water tank with water speed control. There is an ultraviolet (UV) bulb that can eliminate germs as well. There are five cleaning modes, including wall-to-wall and spiral modes, for specific tasks.

EUFY RoboVac 11+ has infrared sensors which let the robot vacuum cleaner sense obstacles and more around the home.
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EUFY RoboVac 11+ has infrared sensors which let the robot vacuum cleaner sense obstacles and more around the home.

EUFY RoboVac 11+
Price: Rs26,990

The circular design is in line with most of its rivals, and RoboVac 11+ gets an anti-scratch tempered glass on the top panel. It has infrared sensors which let the robot vacuum cleaner sense obstacles and more around the home. The three-point cleaning system includes a wide rolling brush, two brushes on the sides, and a suction mechanism. It can automatically increase cleaning power if it detects stubborn dust.

iLife V7S Pro 2 automatically docks into the charger once the cleaning is done.
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iLife V7S Pro 2 automatically docks into the charger once the cleaning is done.

iLife V7S Pro 2
Price: Rs23,999

This is the robot cleaner that will do dry as well as wet cleaning of the floor. There is a 300ml water tank, and the cleaner uses water with precision for wet mopping. There are predefined cleaning modes, such as edge cleaning (around the corners), spot cleaning (for a specific area), as well as scheduled cleaning and auto cleaning. It automatically docks into the charger once the cleaning is done.

—Vishal Mathur

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