And can they get your floors as clean as your conventional model does?

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Robotic vacuums offer a high-tech approach to cleaning, but some homeowners remain skeptical of their efficacy. With their minuscule size and ability to run a cleaning cycle at the push of a button (no manual labor required), it can be hard to imagine how they could possibly measure up to traditional upright models. After all, where are the bags, canisters, cords that make a vacuum, well, a vacuum? To determine exactly how these tiny workhorses get the job done, we tapped two experts and asked them to break down their form and function.

robot vacuum clean in docking station
Credit: imaginima / Getty Images

Robotic vacuums harness the power of tech to clean.

Robotic vacuums have two main jobs to tackle—navigation and suction—and they do both with the help of several high-tech features, says Dan Hayes, the Senior Manager of Emerging Home Appliances at LG Electronics. "The most common navigation technologies are typically infrared (IR) or laser, which allows the robot to both sense objects in a user's environment, map them to memory, and use that map for more accurate and efficient movement and cleaning." There are other advanced robots on the market that integrate not only lasers, but cameras, Artificial Intelligence (AI), or advanced learning technologies, as well. "These help with more precise navigation and, with AI, help detect changes (such as differentiating between animate and inanimate objects)," he says

They're also self-propelled and self-powered. "These battery-powered devices feature two types of brushes, a roller and spinner, which are designed to agitate dirt and debris and pull it inward to the center of the vacuum, into the internal dust bin," explains Andy Knight, Roborock's Head of Global Brand. "Robot vacuums start and end each session at a docking station that doubles as a battery charger to ensure it's ready to go at all times."

They are typically supporting players.

Robot vacuums—like the Roomba ($448, amazon.com)—are traditionally used as secondary or maintenance cleaners alongside their traditional upright and stick counterparts; they offer a way to keep your home cleaner in between major vacuum sessions. "However, with advanced motor and battery technologies—and a proliferation of hard floors—robots are positioned to become capable primary cleaners," explains Hayes.

Expect to see more and more vacuum-mop hybrids in the future.

As robot vacuum technology advances, these units are posited to do more than just vacuum—some will mop hard surfaces, too. "They are designed for convenience, so manufacturers want to continually improve each device to offer and do more," says Knight. "The mopping function on a robot mop might not necessarily have the power to tackle two-week-old, dried-on dirt, but it will give your floor a maintenance clean that might have otherwise not been possible due to time constraints." And while current models may not be any match for your mop, Knight says they are constantly improving. "Roborock just introduced [the S7] model ($350, amazon.com). It has a sonic mop with different scrub settings to clean floors better," Knight says. "It even features carpet recognition technology designed to lift the mop component when carpet is detected without having to set zones or physical barriers."

The main takeaway? They save you time.

The fact that your robotic vacuum cleans your house in the background, while you tackle other tasks, is its main selling point. But, its bells and whistles don't hurt, either. Hayes says that many vacuums on the market today include navigation tools, cliff sensors (that prevent them from falling down any stairs), virtual fencing (which allows you to keep your robot out of certain rooms), and WiFi capabilities, so you can control your machine through the various smart devices you have at home.

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