Over the past two decades, iRobot has steadily evolved its Roombas from being fairly dumb robotic dirt suckers to devices that are smart enough to unload their own bins. Now with the $849 Roomba j7+, the company is ready to take on its greatest challenge yet: Pet poop. It's iRobot's first vacuum that can recognize and avoid obstacles, like cables or a pile of clothes, in real-time. And for pet owners, that could finally be reason to adopt a robot vacuum.
After all, you can't exactly trust your bot to clean up while you're away if they could run into surprises from your furry friends. That's a disaster that could lead to poop being spread around your home, not to mention gumming up your expensive bot. To alleviate that concern, iRobot is making a Pet Owner Official Promise (yes, P.O.O.P.): If your j7+ runs into poop within your first year of ownership, the company will replace your vacuum. That should go a long way towards making pet parents feel more comfortable with a Roomba. (It would be nice to see that offer extended beyond just one year, though.)
While the j7+ is technically the smartest Roomba yet, it's not the company's most powerful cleaner. That honor still belongs to the $1,299 s9+. This new model is basically the Roomba i7+ with a more powerful camera, better sensors and far more processing power. It can also automatically empty its bin into a redesigned Clean Base, which is shorter and sleeker than the previous models we've seen. Now you should be able tuck it into an inobtrusive corner, or under a table, instead of dedicating floorspace to a tall iRobot monolith.
With its "PrecisionVision Navigation" — iRobot's marketing term for AI-driven computer vision — the j7+ can detect specific objects, as well as alert you to obstalces in the iRobot app after a cleaning job. You can label them as permanent or temporary obstructions, which helps the vacuum learn how to deal with similar issues in the future. If there's a pile of cords that will always be in one corner, the j7+ will just stop cleaning around that area for good. But if it's just a headphone cord that you've dropped onto the floor, the robot can give that area another go on future jobs. And since it can actually see and interpret your rooms, the j7+ will also be able to clean more gently along walls and furniture.
As it's relying on computer vision, iRobot had to train new models to help the j7+ recognize objects from floor level (there aren't too many other devices with a camera down there). At this point, CEO Colin Angle tells us that it can recognize and a pair of corded headphones on the ground, but eventually it'll handle shoes and socks as well. When it comes to recognizing pet poop, the company captured photos using playdough models, as well as images from employees, to build what's surely one of the most unique machine learning models around.
iRobot plans to bring the j7+'s sensors to future models, Angle says, but it wanted to introduce them in something more people could buy. As much as I like the pricey s9+, it's not a wise purchase when there are cheaper self-cleaning Roombas around.
The j7+ is powered by iRobot's new Genius 3.0 software, which will also roll out to the rest of the company's connected vacuums. That builds on the features introduced last year — which includes a better mobile app, smarter scheduling and routine triggers — by adding cleaning time estimates, as well as the ability to automatically clean while you're away. The new OS smarts will also let Roombas automatically suggest room labels as they map out your home. And if you send you intrepid bot to clean one room, it'll be able to move throughout your home quietly until it reaches the work zone.
While I haven't tried out the j7+ yet, it's clear that iRobot is targeting a persistent issue with robot vacuums: trust. Early Roombas required plenty of babysitting, otherwise they could easily get stuck or jammed. These days, I habitually clear out my floors before I start a vacuum run, because even newer models can get into trouble. If iRobot can actually develop a vacuum bot that can deal with obstacles on its own, it may finally have the ideal device for people who hate cleaning. At the very least, it'd be nice to have something I can trust to avoid my cat's poop.