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Mopping up robots for smart homes

By Wang Ying in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-24 08:24

Mopping up robots for smart homes

Colin Angle, chairman, CEO and founder of iRobot.

iRobot, a US-based manufacturer of consumer robots, is planning to make China the largest market for its autonomous home vacuum cleaners by 2022 as the country's vast middle class chases quality products that can save on time spent on chores.

iRobot, led by Colin Angle, its chairman, CEO and founder, has already sold more than 15 million home robots worldwide. A scientist by training, Angle made a six-legged autonomous walking robot called Genghis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of his master's degree course project work.

"China is our fastest growing region and it's the fourth largest region today. China is expected to be the largest market for robot vacuums," Angle said.

Last August, iRobot launched a floor mopper tailor-made for the China market. In the first month, about 1,000 units were sold on online retailer alone, with several hundred units sold per month afterward.

Angle said the floor mopper is most successful in Asian countries where hard floors are common. Currently, it brings in about 10 percent of iRobot's total revenue globally. About 40 percent of sales in China is contributed by wet floor care products.

"We're excited by our success in building robots focused on a particular geography, so it's certainly something that we think about as we plan our next products," said Angle.

As a company that introduces innovative new features and products, iRobot estimates it will pump in up to $100 million in research and development this year.

"We see the market for vacuuming robots growing very rapidly. We'll continue to invest in building our presence in China. We think there will be opportunities for research and development in China. It's a country that has tremendous talent and infrastructure to support the robot industry," said Angle.

During his latest trip to China, Angle launched iRobot's connected products, marking the company's leap forward into the smart home segment.

"No company can build everything for the home. So it's my vision that there should be an ecosystem of products and an opportunity for companies to work together to create a benefit to the consumer, so the home can do a more complete job of taking care of itself," said Angle, adding that iRobot will search for companies to work with in coming years.

According to him, iRobot's long-term vision is to build an ecosystem of robots and data to enable the smart home. This smart home will be based on a wide range of connected and coordinated robots, sensors and devices that will seamlessly respond to the needs of daily living.

Although its China head office opened in Shanghai in September last year, iRobot started its business in the country as early as late 1990s by working with US toy manufacturer Hasbro in Guangzhou to build robot toys.

Despite iRobot's 27 years of experience in building robots, Angle said the industry is still young, and the consumer robot segment nascent.

"The opportunity to have robots working together is much larger than just vacuuming and mopping robots. There could be other robots and other products in the home that can take advantage (of emerging technologies). The challenge in making the home truly smart is the complexity," said Angle.

According to him, a truly smart home will one day have hundreds of connected devices in it: light bulbs, thermostats, television, radio, heating system, music system, air conditioner, refrigerator, so on. The smart home needs to understand itself and do the right thing automatically.

"So over the next five years, the robot will help the house understand where things are, so that if you walk into a room, the room will do the right thing. The lights will turn on, the heat will turn on, the television might turn on if you typically watch television at that hour in that room," he said.

Angle regards China and the United States the two world leaders in service robots, and he expects that to continue, especially as the Made in China 2025 initiative will help companies in China to succeed.

"The Chinese government is doing a very smart thing and making robotics a priority for the country. The goal of the (Made in China 2025) plan is to increase technology in manufacturing to allow factories to work smarter and more efficiently," Angle said.

"Service robot is a small industry today, but is quickly growing into a more important industry, although it will be many years before it is as large as the manufacturing industry. But it's important, given that China has some very good advantages and good infrastructure in the robot industry, that it focuses on continuing to be an important and major player in service robots," he said.

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