Lidar vs vSLAM Navigation: Which is Best for Robot Vacuums?

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When looking for robot vacuums, there’s a lot of jargon thrown around especially around the navigation technology such as ‘lidar’ and ‘vSLAM’, but what are these?

Both Lidar and vSLAM are ways that robot vacuums can map your home. Lidar uses lasers which tends to be more accurate, although it’s also more expensive. On the other hand, vSLAM is more affordable but struggles in darker areas of your home and takes longer to create the initial map.

Both types of navigation have their pros and cons, keep reading for a full breakdown of each, which I currently recommend, and what the future holds.

How Do Robot Vacuums Navigate?

In the early days of robot vacuums, they would all use a random path navigation where they bounce around the room until the algorithm determines that they have covered the majority of it.

Next came smart navigation, this uses optical sensors and accelerometers to understand the robot’s position and help it navigate in straighter, more efficient routes.

Finally, came mapping technology, where manufacturers have haven two main approaches; lidar and vSLAM. Both technologies will create a floor plan of your home and use this for room-by-room cleaning and virtual boundaries.

Mapping technology is still limited to premium robot vacuums. Many of the cheaper devices such as Eufy and Coredy will still use random path or smart navigation to keep production costs low.


Lidar vs vSLAM

What is vSLAM in Robot Vacuums?

vSLAM stands for visual simultaneous localisation and mapping, it essentially uses upward-facing cameras to map the ceiling of a room and other major objects in its field of view.

It then uses the objects to work out where it is in the room via advanced algorithms. Over time these algorithms have become smarter, making them more accurate and adding features such as virtual boundaries.

The technology is more popular than Lidar, mainly due to affordability. Both Roomba and Dyson use vSLAM in their devices.


Pros and Cons of vSLAM

Here are the pros and cons of vSLAM in robot vacuums:

Cameras have always been cheaper to manufacture than lasers which is why vSLAM vacuums still have a price advantage over laser-guided vacuums.
Because vSLAM relies on cameras, it needs light to operate. This means vSLAM robot vacuums do not perform well at night or in darker areas of your home such as cupboards and corners. This is why Dyson launched a ring of LED lights on top of their newer Dyson 360 Heurist.
Visual cameras are generally less accurate than lasers as a technology. For the most part, this isn’t too much bother because the other sensors on the vacuum also aid navigation. However, this can be a problem with no-go zones if there are specific areas you want the vacuum to avoid.

What is Lidar in Robot Vacuums?

Lidar stands for light detection and ranging, it is essentially the use of laser-guided navigation and mapping. You can distinguish a lidar robot vacuum by the turret on top that houses the spinning laser. The turret projects lasers and times how long it takes to hit an object and bounce back.

Lidar was first launched in robot vacuums by Neato and has since been adopted by Ecovacs and Roborock too. It creates a map that can then be used for room-by-room cleaning schedules and setting boundaries.

Unlike vSLAM, the map is calculated at the level of the lidar turret, whereas vSLAM technology uses the ceiling for guidance.


Pros and Cons of Lidar

Here are the main pros and cons of lidar compared to vSLAM:

Lidar is more accurate than cameras, this means it sticks to virtual boundaries (also known as no-go lines) better than camera-based systems.
Vacuums using Lidar are much faster at creating the initial map which will usually be completed after one run of your home. It relies less on the bump sensors too.
The part of the robot that houses the Lidar technology is mechanical compared to solid-state cameras used in vSLAM, this can be prone to failures, especially as devices get older.
Lidar isn’t effective against reflective objects, it can sometimes get confused by mirrors or other shiny surfaces. It can also be confused by material, such as curtains or bed sheets, which it may mistake for solid objects. Although newer devices are much more effective at this.
As mentioned before, Lidar is more expensive due to the components required. However, the data received from lasers is also more complex to process so requires more powerful onboard computers, again this adds to the cost of such vacuums.

So, Which is Best?

Overall, Lidar technology is better than vSLAM because it’s more accurate with its maps and virtual boundaries. However, vSLAM vacuums are increasingly a great pick with brands like iRobot putting significant focus on improving the algorithms.

When choosing a robot vacuum, I would recommend that you don’t put too much weight on the type of navigation and instead focus on the navigation features. Some key things to look for include:

  • Room-by-room cleaning schedules
  • Cleaning in specific zones or around certain objects
  • Using voice commands via Alexa and Google Home to initiate cleaning of a certain room
  • Virtual boundaries (also known as no-go lines)
  • How many floor plans can the app store (needed if you use the robot across different floors in your home)
  • How well it functions in the dark

If you need some recommendations, see my full guide to the best robot vacuums with mapping.


Lidar, vSLAM, and AI – Is this the future?

Both Lidar and vSLAM vacuums have their pros and cons. However, there’s a new generation of devices that are taking things to the next level by including a combination of the two and AI.

This takes advantage of the benefits each method offers and as the algorithms improve, the cameras provide valuable data sources for navigating with artificial intelligence.

Devices using multiple navigation methods include Ecovacs Deebot OZMO T8 AIVI and the Roborock S6 MaxV. This is an area to keep an eye on.


Does Roomba use Lidar?

No, Roomba robot vacuums use vSLAM technology which makes use of visual cameras to navigate. Currently, the Roomba i7 and s9 are the only Roomba’s that offer full mapping and cleaning by room. iRobot also has several devices with smart navigation and some of the budget vacuums still use random path navigation.