En español | The future where robots do our cleaning is here — almost.
Cindy Elise Tognazzini, 52, works a 9 to 5 sales job from her home in Agua Dulce, California. In the evenings, she runs Shamrock “T” Ranch from her barn, teaching riding lessons, training horses and tending to animals on her multi-acre property.
With all the dust, dog hair, horse debris and other dirt that comes along with living in the country, Tognazzini just couldn't keep up with the cleaning — until she bought her first robot vacuum, a Roomba, in 2015.
Tognazzini now has three of the dirt-sucking robots stationed around her house. All are set to clean when she heads out to the barn. “It's a huge timesaver for me,” she says.
While vacuums may be the most common home cleaning robots, other automations use sensors, artificial intelligence technology and robotics to tackle projects that include mopping floors, cleaning windows, mowing lawns, dry cleaning clothes and even patrolling the house via cameras from an app on the phone. While more specialized products, like laundry-folding, haven't come as far, there are promising advances.
"Smart technology has taken off within the last five years,” says Barton Paulhamus supervisor of the intelligent systems branch at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. New devices are “bringing intelligence inside the house” but in a way that's user-friendly and simple.
Robot vacuums evolve
The vacuum robots of today are drastically different from the originals. As of 2020, more than 30 million Roombas — essentially the Kleenex of the robot vacuum — have sold worldwide. According to Fortune Business Insights, the worldwide robotic vacuum market was valued at $8.19 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $46.7 billion by 2027.
"The technology and capability of these products has changed,” says Hooman Shahidi, vice president of product management at iRobot. “Six or seven years ago, the robots didn't really have a good understanding of the home they were working in."
The smartest of the current generation use cameras and sensors to create customizable maps of the home as well as to detect and avoid objects in the way.
Samsung's soon-to-be released JetBot AI+ vacuum will feature sensors similar to the ones made for self-driving cars as well as a camera that can be connected to your smartphone to keep an eye on your house, pets or anything else while you're away. Users can access the camera from an app and direct the robot to different parts of the house to spy on a mischevious dog or check whether a window was accidentally left open.
Slightly less smart, Roomba's i7+ comes with an automatic dirt emptying base eliminating the need to dump debris in the garbage after every cleaning. It will pipe up with customized suggestions that may suggest additional vacuum sessions during allergy or pet shedding season. It can be paired with a mop, the Braava Jet M6, that is essentially an automatic Swiffer, using either wet or dry pads to pick up any dirt left from the vacuum
A less-expensive competitor, Eufy's RoboVac G30, uses smart dynamic navigation and sensors to prevent it from falling down stairs. The G30 Hybrid version adds mopping capabilities.
All of these WiFi-connected helpers have locators to prevent them from getting lost under the couch like the versions that predated artificial intelligence. That happened to one of Tognazzini's older Roombas and it took about a week to figure out where it was. “It would've been nice if it had a locator,” she says.
The indoor technology has also been adapted for the outdoors. Robots can now mow your lawn, using rain sensors to avoid trimming when grass is wet, and have the ability to go uphill and adapt to seasonal grass changes.
Automated laundry folding on the horizon
Home robots are looking to inhabit every room of the house: recent developments include roaming robots with affixed UV lights to disinfect rooms, shower cleaners and a $75,000 robotic dog that can grab and carry objects, which could potentially be used to tidy up the house.
Samsung also sells what is essentially an in-home dry-cleaner. The AirDresser uses steam and air flow to sanitize clothes and relax wrinkles while removing dust and odors. Though the need for dry cleaning may have decreased as people work from home, the concept highlights the goals that many companies have in pushing new technology further into living spaces. According to Rich Leonarz, director of product marketing for Samsung Home Appliances, “It's finding those chores that are done frequently and figuring out how to simplify them.”
But some barriers to a fully automated home cleaning routine are difficult to overcome.
"There's a lot of interest in folding laundry,” says Paulhamus. “It is one of the holy grails in robotics. That's when I'm going to get excited, when I can dump laundry into a machine and it comes out folded."
A few years ago, two devices — Laundroid and FoldiMate — aimed to do the latter for the masses by the end of 2017. One failed and the other has had multiple setbacks including a need for funding and a manufacturing partner.
While robotic folding machines may have a way to go, smart technology and artificial intelligence have advanced the laundry process by detecting items in machines and automatically adjusting for optimized cleaning. New WiFi-connected washer and dryers allow users to stop and start machines from their smartphones and offer automatic alerts when clothes are done.
Paulhamus says other home tech has yet to reach its potential, such as window cleaners. “I haven't been very impressed. One: they need to be powered, so when you see a video of them, there's always an extension cord hanging down.” That means these robots not only look awkward but need to be moved from window to window with the help of a human being.
Tognazzini, who uses three Roombas at a time, has benefitted from the evolution of that technology and hopes more artificially intelligent devices can make her cleaning routine even simpler. Maybe someday soon there will be a robot to unload her dishwasher.
Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer who covers pets, health and home design. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR and BBC Travel.