iRobot just banked a fat profit. And it knows how to make more: Sharing maps of your homes

Roomba biz hopes to ink deals with Amazon et al

Updated Roomba maker iRobot recorded soaring sales and banked rising profits in the three months to July, according to figures revealed on Tuesday.

Yet despite all that success, the vacuum-cleaning bot builder has its eyes on another lucrative prize: the layout of your home.

Chief exec Colin Angle believes his bottom line can be boosted even further if he can give this sensitive customer information to the “Big Three” – Amazon, Google and Apple.

The American outfit's most well-known product is the Roomba, a disc-shaped domestic droid that scoots around your gaff sucking up dust. To stop it from getting jammed in corners or bumping into objects, it’s equipped with a camera and sensors to scope out our living space. It remembers the layout of furniture strewn around the place and where the walls are – ie, it maps your home. And it's happy to send this information back to iRobot's servers via the internet.

In an interview this week, Angle said this was exactly the type of data he wants to hand over, with your permission, of course: “There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared.”

It's believed gadgets like digital personal assistants, smart lighting, and thermostats, can perform better or more efficiently if they have data about a home's physical environment. Guy Hoffman, a researcher interested in human-robot interaction at Cornell University, chimed in to say that regularly updated maps mean “sound systems could match home acoustics, air conditioners could schedule airflow by room, and smart lighting could adjust according to the position of windows and time of day.”

Essentially, Amazon Echoes and similar gear linked to your cleaning maid machine can use a map of your cosy abode to fine-tune search results, settings, and such things for you. For example, if a Roomba discovers a newly created sofa-shaped hole in your living room, your Amazon recommendations could be flooded with leather couches. Or something like that. How useful this business strategy is may be debatable, since homeowners rarely change the layouts of their houses. How exactly iRobot will profit off this is also unclear.

The obvious concern is privacy. Such information not only discloses the floor plan of your house or apartment, but also your daily habits and lifestyle.

At the moment, Roomba’s privacy policy states that it collects telemetry and "location mapping" from Roombas to analyze “statistics and usage data, diagnose and fix technology problems, enhance device performance, and improve user experience.”

“We may use this information to provide you personalized communications, including marketing and promotional messages, such as emails providing product order information when your device indicates a battery is low,” it adds. Here's the full text:

Some of our Robots are equipped with smart technology which allows the Robots to transmit data wirelessly to the Service [iRobot's support systems]. For example, the Robot could collect and transmit information about the Robot’s function and use statistics, such as battery life and health, number of missions, the device identifier, and location mapping. When you register your Robot with the online App, the App will collect and maintain information about the Robot and/or App usage, feature usage, in-App transactions, technical specifications, crashes, and other information about how you use your Robot and the product App. We also collect information provided during set-up.

We use this information to collect and analyze statistics and usage data, diagnose and fix technology problems, enhance device performance, and improve user experience. We may use this information to provide you personalized communications, including marketing and promotional messages, such as emails providing product order information when your device indicates a battery is low. Our Robots do not transmit this information unless you register your device online and connect to WiFi, Bluetooth, or connect to the internet via another method. It is possible to use our smart technology Robots without WiFi or Bluetooth data transmission, simply by disconnecting your WiFi or Bluetooth from the device or by never connecting it at all.

So in other words, iRobot vacuums up telemetry and home layout data from your Roomba if you register your device and you connect it to the internet – which we bet most people do. Right now, that firehose of data is being used to monitor and tune the performance of hardware out in the field, we're told. The sharing of this potentially sensitive information has yet to happen. That will change, once iRobot gets into bed with the cloud giants and if you end up granting permission.

“iRobot takes privacy and security of its customers very seriously. We will always ask your permission to even store map data," Angle told The Register via email.

"Right now, iRobot is building maps to enable the Roomba to efficiently and effectively clean your home. In the future, with your permission, this information will enable the smart home and the devices within it to work better. For example, in order for the lights to turn on when you walk into a room, the home must know what lights are in which rooms.”

Angle did not go into detail regarding what “with your permission” meant – whether customers would have to explicitly enable it or if simply registering and connecting to the internet suffices.

iRobot seems to be transforming into a data farm, but it started as a company specializing in military and space exploration robots. It sold its military division Defense & Security Business to Arlington Capital Partners for $45m last year. It launched its Roombas way back in 2007. ®

Updated to add

Angle's interview with Reuters concluded that iRobot was going to sell customer data to cloud giants. The newswire has since backtracked on that, correcting its article to say the Roomba maker will "share maps for free with customer consent" rather than "sell." The biz insists it won't flog people's information, and that Reuters got the wrong end of the stick.

That said, it's still not super clear when exactly this consent to hand over the data is or will be granted by customers. If you have a Roomba, check your privacy policy and settings now and in future.


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