Mike Aldred was hired by high-end appliance maker Dyson in 1998 with the goal of creating a robotic vacuum. Aldred was familiar with founder James Dyson’s legendary perfectionism, but even that didn’t prepare him for the task that lay ahead. For the next 18 years he worked this singular idea without a single commercial product release to show for his troubles.
So it was a very happy Aldred who greeted me in a SoHo loft in lower Manhattan to show off the Dyson 360 Eye, its first and only robotic vacuum cleaner. "For us, it had to be a vacuum cleaner first, and then it was automated, rather than a robot that’s had a vacuum cleaner added to it," he explained. "Everything else we’ve seen to date coming out on the market didn’t really compare with what we were aiming for in terms of cleaning, so there was no rush for us to get to market, because we knew that when we came out, we would be the best vacuum cleaner." The 360 Eye goes on sale in the US August 1st.
To produce a true vacuum, Dyson had to miniaturize its patented cyclone technology, and find a way to balance that power-hungry component with a robot that could work long enough to vacuum a good portion of your house. "That changes everything, the way you work. If you focus on making sure it’s a vacuum cleaner first, it puts a lot of pressure and constraints on you, and that makes it a very serious challenge," says Aldred. The Cyclone is the key differentiator between the 360 Eye and other robot vacuums on the market. It provides a much stronger, more capable vacuum, at the cost of a taller unit that can’t fit under low-hanging furniture.
I’ve spent the last two weeks using the 360 Eye, and am very impressed with it. It doesn’t seem to navigate around my house quite as intelligently or efficiently as the Roomba 980 I used last winter, but it doesn’t miss any space either. And the space it covers is left far cleaner, thanks to its serious suction. I felt bad for the little bot sometimes, watching it timidly crawl its way back to its base station to charge up. It feels out its location a few inches at a time, pausing, backtracking, then moving ahead. But I didn’t mind that it had to work twice as hard to clean my apartment, because it delivered such a high-quality cleaning. Of course, it should deliver a high-quality cleaning given its price of $999.99 — more than any unit we have reviewed to date.
Dyson's robotic vacuum is taller than the competition
The insistence of using Cyclone technology meant Dyson has a different form factor from most of the other robotic vacuums on the market. The 360 Eye is 4.72 inches tall, compared with the new Roomba 980, which stands 3.6 inches tall. The height was dictated by the insistence on using Dyson’s Cyclone technology, which loses its effectiveness if made any shorter. And Aldred argues that while the 360 is tall, it’s not nearly as wide as most competitors. The Dyson clocks in at a 9-inch diameter, versus almost 14 inches for the new Roomba. The powerful vacuum also drains battery. The 360 Eye went about 45 minutes in between charges, while the Roomba 980 and Deebot 80 last for closer to two hours. But the Dyson’s charging time seemed correspondingly short, and I didn’t notice any difference in the time it took to clean my apartment. In part that was because the larger vacuum and Cyclone design meant the 360 Eye could collect a lot more dirt before its bin was full and required human help to be emptied.
In my experience the Dyson leaves a few spots under furniture that would require attention during a deep clean, areas that the Roomba would tidy up during a normal cycle. If you’re buying a robot vacuum with the goal of having it get under low furniture, this is not the unit for you. But in terms of overall clean, the 360 Eye did a nice job covering corners and the edges of walls, squeezing into spots my Roomba sometimes missed. I also found that the Cyclone bin and double air filter meant it left behind far less fine grit than other units I’ve used.
Dyson is betting on computer vision for the future
The main sensor on the 360 Eye is its namesake, a 360-degree camera that pokes out from a glass half dome on top of the unit. It records a circular video of its surroundings, capturing a wedge of the world about 45 degrees wide. It looks for objects and structures that stand out — corners, paintings, wall sockets — and uses them to build a map. It triangulates its location like a sailor, by looking at its relative position to these landmarks. It also has a pair of IR sensors on its front end that help it see and avoid objects directly in its path.
The 360 Eye isn’t attempting to do anything complex with computer vision right now, but Aldred says the main reason its foundation is an optical sensor — as opposed to the laser or radar systems used by other robotic vacuums — is that Dyson believes computer vision will dramatically and rapidly improve over the coming years. This will allow it to build far more advanced capabilities into future generations of robots, even bolstering the 360 Eye with over-the-air software updates.
That’s a smart bet. Drone makers like DJI were able to push new autonomous flight capabilities to their Phantom 3 line of aircraft through a software update. And the chips and sensors needed for advanced computer vision are becoming increasingly commoditized, pushed along by the rapidly growing market for consumer drones and the need for VR / AR-capable mobile devices to perform inside-out sensing on the world around them.
Dyson is promising improvements through software updates
We’ll have to wait and see how many improvements Dyson can actually make through software upgrades. Right now the device is easy to set up and pair, the app works consistently, and scheduling is a snap. The 360 Eye regularly found its way back to the charging dock and would resume cleaning after refreshing its battery. Its dustbin filled up right away in a dirty house, but after running it consistently for a few days, it could handle almost my entire apartment, roughly 1,000 square feet, on a single bin. I would turn it on in the morning, leave the house, and come back home to find it still cleaning hours later, having taken a break or two to charge its batteries.
If you’re not price sensitive and don’t have lots of low-hanging furniture, the Dyson 360 Eye is definitely the most capable cleaner among the robotic vacuums I’ve tried. It’s a better cleaner than the $100 cheaper Roomba 980, provided you don’t have a lot of low furniture to clean under. You can get a solid clean with a Neato Botvac, which is $500 less, so the 360 Eye is definitely not the best deal in terms of value.
But it embodies all the qualities Dyson is known for: sharp design, strong core technology, and market-leading performance. Dyson was smart to focus on its strengths here. No vacuum robot I have met so far has really impressed me with its smarts, so a decently smart robot with a very good vacuum is actually the best combination. Hopefully it won’t take 18 years for Dyson to release the next one.