Business / Tech

Robotics investments help SoftBank create Roomba rival Whiz

Bloomberg

SoftBank Group Corp. has put billions of dollars into a laser-based technology that could allow cars to drive themselves and help astronauts land on distant planets. It turns out that same technology makes a pretty good vacuum cleaner.

Engineers at SoftBank Robotics have spent years applying lidar, which accurately maps distances in real time, to carpet cleaning. The result is Whiz, a sort of extremely high-end Roomba that SoftBank will start selling to companies in the U.S. on Tuesday for $499 a month.

Given the high price, offices are the target market. The robot can run for three hours on a charge and clean as much as 15,000 square feet (about 1,394 square meters), according to the company.

“In the cleaning industry, there’s been a lot of excitement about this,” said Kass Dawson, head of business strategy at SoftBank Robotics America.

SoftBank is most commonly associated with its mobile network in Japan and the massive amounts of cash it’s investing in tech companies around the world — sometimes unwisely, as in the case of WeWork. But robotics has long been an interest of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son.

The conglomerate introduced a humanoid named Pepper five years ago that can be found at airports and stores attempting to answer customers’ questions. Although Pepper can move on wheels, it typically stays in place and lacks the sophistication of Whiz’s movement. When Pepper debuted, according to Dawson, people frequently asked if it could vacuum. It can’t.

Another SoftBank robot called Nao is focused on education. The company wants to gradually refine its robotics chops as it works toward more complicated tasks, such as in logistics and warehousing. The eventual goal is to free up human workers to focus on more complicated work, Dawson said. “We need to do some research and figure out which is the right repeatable task to be replaced,” he said.

But it’s up to people to train their eventual robot replacement. Whiz needs to be taught the cleaning route before it can get started. After that, the vacuum can learn to account for changes in the layout, such as furniture moved into new positions.

The project has benefited from SoftBank’s wide array of investments. Whiz’s operating system, BrainOS, is made by a company called Brain Corp., which is backed by SoftBank’s Vision Fund.