iRobot Roombas enters the arms of Amazon

The acquisition comes at a difficult time for iRobot, which posted $1.6 billion in revenue last year but has seen sales fall so far this year, in part due to issues. of supply chain. The company also announced a series of restructuring efforts on Friday, which will include laying off around 140 employees, or 10% of its global workforce. iRobot will also move some jobs to lower cost regions and reduce its real estate footprint. Currently, iRobot employs approximately 700 people in Massachusetts.

If and when the sale goes through, iRobot will join Amazon’s growing stable of robotic operations, including North Reading-based Kiva Systems, which Amazon acquired for $775 million a decade ago and renamed Amazon. Robotics.

iRobot is considered the godfather of the region’s thriving robotics scene, which now includes more than 400 companies, according to trade group MassRobotics. It has also played an outsized role in accelerating the adoption of household robots, selling some 40 million worldwide.

The company has a long-standing close relationship with Amazon. Founder Jeff Bezos even served for several years in the mid-2000s as iRobot’s strategic advisor and mentor to iRobot’s CEO, Colin Angle.

“He recognized early on that robots were a game-changer,” Angle told The Globe in 2015.

Angle will remain CEO of iRobot after the acquisition, the companies said.

iRobot rose to prominence early on for its military robots used in surveillance and bomb disposal. The company’s machines helped explore the wreckage of the World Trade Center and disarm booby traps in Iraq. Its biggest success by far came with the launch of Roomba in 2002, which eventually eclipsed iRobot’s military business.

Other iRobot products have been less successful. The company’s Braava robot mop sold well, but other machines, such as a robot for cleaning gutters, never caught on.

iRobot has also faced competition from Chinese rival SharkNinja, whose US headquarters are in Needham. iRobot has filed several federal lawsuits arguing that SharkNinja’s products infringe iRobot’s patents, but SharkNinja has prevailed on several occasions.

In January, iRobot petitioned the US International Trade Commission to ban SharkNinja from importing its machines. Do you want conversation? Yes. How is it going? I say it’s excellent, it’s hot.

Recently, iRobot has mainly focused on using advanced software and sensors to add enhanced capabilities to its robotic mops and vacuums. Early Roombas wandered haphazardly on the floor; today’s models generate 3D maps of the client’s home and use artificial intelligence to find their way around and avoid obstacles.

Co-founder Helen Greiner, who left iRobot in 2008 and now runs a gardening robot company, said she thinks Roomba’s artificial intelligence features pair well with Alexa speech control technology. ‘Amazon.

“What I like about this acquisition of Amazon,” she said, “is Amazon’s big bet in the consumer robot space.”

Amazon and iRobot have been working on meshing their consumer products for years. In 2017 they released a feature allowing users to use Alexa to start and stop their Roomba. Now the feature supports more complicated requests, such as “Alexa, ask Roomba to vacuum the master bedroom” or “Alexa, ask Braava to schedule the mop in the morning”.

Amazon has its own home robot, the Astro, which acts as a traveling home security camera. Greiner said the combined intelligence of Astro, Alexa and Roomba could hasten the day when homes have “a whole suite of home robots, helping you with everything.”

But Amazon’s dominance in the home tech market worries Robert Weissman, president of consumer rights think tank Public Citizen, who warned it would give the company access to more personal information about consumers. clients.

“This isn’t just about Amazon selling another device,” Weissman said in a statement. “It’s about the company getting into even more intimate details of our lives to gain an unfair advantage in the market and sell us more stuff.”

And it’s possible the deal will draw the attention of the Biden administration, which seeks to rein in the market power of Amazon and other big tech companies and sued last month to block Meta’s planned acquisition. from virtual reality software maker Within. A similar challenge is possible here, said Ben Rose, president of Battle Road Research in Lexington.

“It may not be an easy road to closing the deal,” he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.

Martin E. Berry