The conventional robot vacuum space has many compelling brands and solutions. If you’re looking to merely automate your vacuuming of hard surfaces or rugs, there are great solutions from legacy brands like iRobot’s well-known Roomba and Neato Robotics that range in price points from $400 to $830. Even lower-end brands like Ecovacs provide suitable solutions in the sub-$299 space (though don't be surprised if they give out after a year or so if you use them 2 or 3 times per week).
The “Holy Grail” in this category has always been the ability to mop as well as vacuum. Roomba-class robot vacuums typically mop in a simplistic (and not terribly effective) manner—dragging a moist cloth to pick up dirt, with water drawn from a small tank on the device. It doesn’t take an Apple design engineer to tell you that these type of solutions almost always provide unsatisfying results. It requires the user to manually clean the cloth several times for a single cleaning job (a poor customer experience to say the least) and the aforementioned cloth often pushes more dirt around than it picks up.
Narwal’s Robotic Cleaner goes where no mop has gone before
The Narwal Robotic Cleaner is altogether a different type of robotic cleaning solution. Available via a Kickstarter campaign for an introductory price of $549 and shipping in the September timeframe, the product both vacuums and mops in separate modes. Though it looks like your typical round rug-cleaning robot vacuum, the product utilizes LIDAR technology (similar to Neato Robotics' products) and smart sensors to intelligently navigate your home floor. A laser turret enables the LIDAR on top of the unit. To enable floor vacuuming, the user attaches a sweeping module to studs at the bottom of the cleaner; a mopping module is swapped in for wet floor cleaning.
The Narwal Robot Cleaner utilizes two one-of-a-kind 5-liter water tanks in its stylishly designed base station, which are used in mopping mode to clean the mop and charge the unit. The white base station looks clean and modern, with only two buttons and a small screen that indicates which mode the vacuum is in and charging status. Unlike other robot mops that wet and drag around a microfibre cloth, the Narwal solution’s aforementioned mopping module, when attached, rotates the two triangular microfibre clothes for a very deep clean. While there's no water tank in the robot itself, the base station's two 5-liter tanks automatically clean the mops when the product is docked, dispensing dirty water into the second tank. Removing the tanks from the base station is extremely easy, and the product includes a starter bottle of cleaning fluid to aid mopping (Narwal says you can use standard floor cleaner when the starter bottle runs out). The product also offers Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support so that you use voice commands to control it.
While I was a bit skeptical of how thoroughly the Narwal product could mop my hardwood floors, the results truly impressed me. Not only did the floor have an actual soft “glow” after it finished its 45-minute mopping cycle, it never stalled or got stuck in any of the nook and crannies on the floor. The Narwal comes with magnetic strips that establish “keep out” zones, which successfully kept the vacuum from venturing onto my area rug. When in vacuum mode, the results were similarly impressive.
I will say that I don't believe it was any more impressive than my trusty Neato Robotics D5 that I've been using for the (and I do prefer the Neato's famous "D" shaped form factor as it does a better job cleaning corners). Additionally, all of my testing was using the product in “manual” pushbutton mode, since Narwal’s iOS app is still in beta mode.
Still, Narwal should be congratulated for its breakthrough “all-in-one” combo robot for cleaning and mopping. Even if the price point rises to $799 after the Kickstarter program ends, the Narwal solution is still an incredible bargain with more functionality in a single integrated solution than other products on the market.
The Narwal Robot Cleaner has a lot of potential, and I look forward to revisiting the product when its mobile device app becomes available. It will truly become a home-run product if it eventually offers virtual "keep out" zones similar to Neato’s robot vacuums. Time will tell, but the Narwal Robotic Cleaner could be the ultimate robot mop and vacuum that consumers have been waiting for.
Trifo Ironpie is the first smart robot vacuum to focus on home security
As I’ve mentioned before, the traditional robot vacuum market is not devoid of players with high-quality solutions—especially those from iRobot and Neato Robotics. Companies such as Ecovacs have mostly focused on the lower end of the market, with lower-priced (sub-$299) offerings with fewer features. With the robot cleaning vacuum market expected to grow to $4.34 billion by 2023, according to Research and Markets, it’s understandable why other players might want to get into the game.
Enter Trifo, a Bay Area-based startup who recently received $11 million in new funding to build its next-generation smart home robots. The fruits of that funding yielded the Ironpie Smart Robot Vacuum. The Ironpie is no slouch in the AI horsepower department—it's equipped with an ARMv8-A quad-core CPU and Trifo's proprietary vision system. The Ironpie differentiates itself with several impressive AI-enabled capabilities. First, it claims to clean at least 10% faster than other competing robot vacuums due to its advanced multi-sensor fusion system. Second, it purports to do a better job at protecting furniture (an occasional complaint from some consumers) with its obstacle-sensing capabilities. Lastly, the Ironpie is the first robot vacuum of its kind to offer an integrated security camera that can provide remote mobile surveillance. Most impressive of all is that with all of these capabilities, the Ironpie is priced at an affordable $299.
I took the Ironpie for a spin to see if Trifo delivered on its promises. While it did clean my condo’s floor on the first try without getting stuck, I couldn’t quantify the 10% faster claim compared to my Neato robot vacuum. That said, I don’t particularly care about faster cleaning speeds since I have my Neato clean on a regular cycle (which it does exceedingly well). I did observe that the Ironpie was decidedly more sensitive as it worked around furniture legs and the floor baseboards in my home, so that claim checked out. Going into it, I was most excited about the embedded camera. While it indeed does work as advertised, capturing and letting you view live video, I’m not sure the feature has much value beyond the curiosity factor. I don’t see a value proposition in the ability to see what’s going on my home while it’s vacuuming. This feature would be much more interesting if the Ironpie could detect sounds (e.g. glass shattering or a very loud noise) so that it could automatically investigate the incident and capture it for remote playback.
Trifo is on to something with adding video surveillance capability to its Ironpie vacuum robot. While the implementation of the feature needs to be improved, it is not difficult to conjure up scenarios where a feature like this could be useful—particularly since in-house video cameras typically have a fixed field of view. For now, Ironpie’s competent cleaning capability, easy-to-use mobile app, and the ability to avoid scratching furniture makes it a solid product at an extremely affordable $299 price point.
Both the Narwal and Ironpie solutions, while not perfect, prove that innovation continues to flourish in the robot vacuum category. The introduction of "all-in-one" (integrated printer, scanner, and fax machine functionality) showed nearly 2 decades ago that consumers are attracted to easy to use devices that can accomplish numerous tasks. We’re now beginning to see this again in the robot vacuum category, with the addition of in-home surveillance and integrated mopping capabilities. While legacy brands tend to take a more conservative approach to innovation, companies like Narwal and Trifo prove that you can be original and disruptive at the same time. Bravo!