IRobot Corp., maker of the disc-shaped Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, said it’s working on a household helper that will have arms that could load dishes, pick up clothes, or bring food from kitchen to table.
The Bedford, Massachusetts-based company won’t start selling such a product for at least five years. But prototypes of the arms exist inside its research and development labs, Chief Executive Officer Colin Angle said in an interview on the sidelines of the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. IRobot’s main new hardware launch for 2020 will be its Terra lawnmower.
The shares gained as much as 3.8% Thursday in New York.
IRobot previously developed robotic-arm technology for its military unit. The company sold that business in 2016 but kept the arm assets. At the time, the company didn’t know how to adapt the technology for mainstream use, Angle said, but new advancements in computer vision and the ability for robots to map out a person’s home make such devices possible.
Other technology companies are also working on home robots, including Amazon.com Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., but so far they are focusing on devices with video conferencing and voice assistants rather than the ability to actually conduct physical tasks.
The trade war between the U.S. and China could put a damper on iRobot’s ambitions in the near term. Angle said it’s had a “negative impact” on business. “We are having to scale back R&D and profitability” targets, he said. The company started shipping its lower-cost Roomba vacuum cleaner robots out of Malaysia, instead of China, in November, he said.