The Robots Still Haven't Taken Over


Two years ago, when we last saw iRobot at CES, the company didn't have anything groundbreaking to talk about. Sadly, that's still true.

Instead of showing off a series of automated breakthroughs, iRobot touted new generations of its existing household bots. They're growing up fast:

  • The Roomba vacuum cleaner is now in its sixth generation.

  • The Scooba floor scrubber is in its third generation.

  • The Looj gutter cleaner made its third-generation debut at CES.

  • And iRobot recast its pool cleaner as a second-generation product called Mira.

A military bot called the Seaglider, which made for a neat booth prop in 2011, was nowhere to be found. But that's also to be expected: CES is a consumer-driven show. Battle bots were bound to take a backseat. Plus there are the financials to consider: Military sales now account for just 35% of profits, down from nearly 50% four years ago.

Consumer bots have become iRobot's bread and butter. Accordingly, a spokesperson who showed us around said we can expect more R&D in this area, including the possibility of adding "Northstar" positioning technology for a more precise and efficient clean. (iRobot acquired Northstar in a $74 million deal for peer Evolution Robotics last year.)

Our 2011 visit with iRobot included a closer look at an open platform experiment called Ava -- a robot base and body topped by an iPad face built to detect and steer around obstacles. She'd get an Android retrofit by that summer's Google developer conference.

Two years later, Ava has given way to RP-VITA, a robot designed in tandem with InTouch Systems for delivering specialized care remotely -- think of it as a gateway for bringing expert consultation anywhere it's needed, including rural hospitals where specialists may be harder to find. Regulators at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved the robot for use in hospitals.

While that's awesome -- and we certainly liked what we saw from a prototype at CES -- no one should think iRobot is on its way to becoming the next Intuitive Surgical, which fully owns, manufacturers, and sells the daVinci robotic surgery system.

Rather, think of iRobot as a Rule Breaker that's still making its way. RP-VITA suggests there are logical, profitable avenues for growth outside of housecleaning. All we need now is serious revenue growth to prove it.

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Fool contributors Tim Beyers and Karl Thiel are members of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. Tim owned shares of Google. Karl didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication.The Motley Fool owns shares of Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, iRobot, and Intuitive Surgical. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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