Dyson Singapore lab reveals secrets behind remarkable new cleaning tech

Dyson Future of Clean devices

It’s rare that Dyson launches more than one product at a time, and even rarer still that the company announces multiple things that are months away from being launched in stores. But that’s what the famously secretive English company did today, announcing the Dyson 360 Vis Nav robot vacuum, a vacuum cleaner mopping attachment, and a large air purifier.

Last month, I headed to Dyson’s Singapore R&D facility to learn all about the three products, see them in action, and chat with the people who designed them.

Dyson 360 Vis Nav: a heavy-duty robot vacuum

The hero product announced really is the Dyson 360 Vis Nav ($2,399), which is a clunky name for what so far appears to be a slick product. This is the first robot vacuum cleaner Dyson has released in Australia, but it’s not the first robot the company has made. That honour goes to the DC06, released in 2003. It was round, extremely expensive to make and didn’t get out of the home trial stage.

The first Dyson robot vacuum cleaner sold in stores was the 360 Eye, which switched from using 60 heavy and expensive sensors to having a 360-degree camera built into the top (hence the name). It was tall, round, and heralded as the best available (but still not good enough) when it hit shelves in 2015. That was updated in 2019 to the 360 Heurist which retailed for 799.99GBP (roughly $1,686.80AUD) and featured a full brush bar.

If you lift up a competitor robot, they’re light, because there’s nothing in them. Whereas we’re measuring four and a half kilograms. It’s because we’re jam-packed full of technology.

James Carswell, Senior Design Manager, RDD at Dyson

James Carswell, Senior Design Manager, RDD at Dyson, explained that the team learned a lot from the previous less successful robots, and also the failures.

“The previous robots were mostly round,” Carswell said. “So, while they did have a full-width brush bar that was trying to get into the corners, it wasn’t doing that properly.”

“So, we’ve redesigned this into what we call a ‘D shape’ so it gets properly into corners. Also, our previous robot was a lot higher, so it wasn’t getting underneath low furniture as much as we wanted to, so, we compressed that all down.”

The hard thing to get past with the 360 Vis Nav is the price. It’s not the most expensive on the Australian market, true, but all the other robots in this price range have auto-empty stations and mopping functions. There are lots of ways Dyson would probably justify this, beyond just the knowledge that people will pay premium prices for the Dyson brand name.

Taking it up to the competition

On the tour, we went from lab to lab, like the anechoic chamber where they tested the sound the vacuum in the robot made and worked to make it less annoying. Or the room where they do nothing but drop devices from a variety of heights many, many times to make sure they’ll survive real-world usage. Or the other room where there were just a bunch of disembodied robot arms picking up toys as an example of what’s come from the $1bn investment Dyson has made in robotics (which contributed to the 360 Vis Nav, even though it doesn’t have arms).

Dyson DC06
It took a long time for a Dyson robot vacuum to come to Australia, but now the wait is nearly over. Image: Alice Clarke

An intriguing element of the 360 Vis Nav that Carswell pointed out was the device’s weight. He went to great lengths to compare how much heavier Dyson’s robot vacuum is than competing brands, as a positive point of difference.

“If you saw one of our clear machines, it is packed full of technology,” Carswell said. “There’s not a spare millimetre of space. Whereas when we’re taking competitors apart, they’re mostly empty. If you lift up a competitor robot, they’re light, because there’s nothing in them. Whereas we’re measuring four and a half kilograms. It’s because we’re jam-packed full of technology.”

The other justification is that Dyson claims the 360 Vis Nav has the most powerful suction of any robot vacuum cleaner. At 65 air watts, it’s on par with the Dyson V8 stick vacuum cleaner (though less than a quarter of the power of the Gen 5 Detect, which has 265AW). It’s tricky to confirm Dyson’s claims, however, because other brands don’t advertise the air wattage of their machines. When contacted for details, other robot vacuum cleaner companies provided suction power specifications measured in pascals (Pa).

In response to this, Carswell mentioned that “a lot of [other companies] do tend to claim pressure in pascals just because it’s a big number, basically.”

“But we use air watts, which is a measure of both pressure and flow. Pressure, that’s the vacuum inside the cleaner head, and it’s measured in pascals, that is basically the vacuum that’s drawing dust out of the carpet. You then need flow as well to pull that dust away into the bin and if you times pressure by flow, you get air watts. The competition, they tend to be good at one or other, so they might have really good pressure, so the dust is pulled out the carpet but then they’re not drawing it in [to the bin], in the way of that flow, or vice versa.”

Dyson robot vacuum lab
Dyson has a rich history when it comes to vacuum cleaners. Image: Alice Clarke

A lot of other robot vacuums on the market also proudly proclaim that you can access the cameras on the robot from anywhere in the world to be used as a surveillance device, which is equal parts handy for pet owners and terrifying for anyone who knows how easy they are to hack.

My biggest irritation with robot vacuum cleaners is that they will eat any cable that’s unfortunate enough to be in its path, and will gobble stray socks and then complain about it. Sadly, the Dyson 360 Vis Nav will not have the ability to avoid obstacles smaller than furniture, or learn about the difficult sideboard it always gets stuck under.

Carswell said that obstacle detection and avoidance features might come to future robots, but not this one.

“We’re starting work on those kinds of technologies, but we don’t think it’s ready just yet. Even some of the competitors that claim to have this AI and machine learning, I think it’s just a bit of marketing, to be honest. I don’t think it’s genuinely performing that well. So, for now, we think it’s best for humans to go around and check their home is ready before you clean and then when you need to adapt your robot’s behaviour, for you to do it yourself. Because you know your home best at the moment.”

Dyson Submarine: a super soaking attachment

I have to admit that, knowing how literal most Dyson names are, I thought the Dyson Submarine ($1,549) was going to be much cooler than it actually was. I don’t know where or how I was going to use a personal submarine, but I was intrigued to see how that would work. Sadly, for those with high expectations, it’s just a mopping attachment.

If you’ve recently bought a V12, V15 or Gen 5 Detect, then this is not an attachment for you. Weirdly, it’s not going to be backwards compatible, or compatible with the Gen 5 Detect at all.

Dyson Submarine mop attachment
Dyson’s Submarine attachment in action.

Charlie Park, Vice President of Floorcare, RDD at Dyson tried to justify this with an explanation of the software functionality. Apparently, previous vacuum devices don’t have the software required to recognise the new mopping attachment.

“The reason we’ve had to do that is we need the machine to be able to recognise that the wet head is attached, and we’ve had to make software changes to the product to be able to recognise that head,” Park said. “Our previous machines, the previous V12s and V15s that we’ve sold, they don’t have that capability.”

“So, if you put the wet cleaner head on to them, they would still be trying to suck and they would also not have the latest UI which is describing the fact that you’re in wet mode. What we are doing though going forward is all of our dry V12s and V15s new SKUs that we’re bringing out, they will all have compatibility, but it’s just unfortunate that anything from the original V12s and V15s, we won’t be able to make compatible.”

Given these are extremely expensive machines, Dyson would have had to have known for ages that this Submarine attachment was coming. These machines are supposed to be state of the art, so surely there could have been some way to push a software update, or build something into the head. When the Detect function launched, that wasn’t backwards compatible either for similar reasons, so it’s not like this was unprecedented. It’s an interesting choice on the part of Dyson.

In the demonstrations, the Submarine did an excellent job of cleaning up spills. However, cleaning the head looked a bit gross and labour-intensive. It’ll be interesting to test properly when we get our hands on a review unit.

Dyson Big + Quiet: the aptly named air purifier

The Dyson Big + Quiet (from $1,499) not only has the best name in Dyson product history, but it also has some pretty big advancements in air purification and clean air distribution that could make it a good retrofit for buildings with poor air circulation.

Dyson has long proudly gone above and beyond the standard testing requirements for HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorbing) filters. Dyson tested the Big + Quiet in a room four times larger than the standard HEPA test calls for, tested the whole machine, and had it on the lowest fan speed.

The Big + Quiet uses its cone-shaped head to throw the clean air 10 metres, which is far further than any domestic air purifier I’ve ever seen or tested. This is impressive and important, given an air purifier is only useful if the purified air is spread around the whole space, not just the immediate area.

Dyson Big + Quiet bedroom
The Dyson Big + Quiet sure lives up to its name.

While the name is delightful enough, the Big + Quiet’s most delightful feature is ‘Breeze Mode’. It’s a mode that makes the air coming out of the machine feel like a light breeze, which Dyson hopes people will find refreshing. If you, like me, pondered what constitutes a light breeze, Dyson made it some guy’s job to quantify the essence of a breeze. According to Theo Jones, who was part of the team that worked on the Big + Quiet “the research engineer took 40 million data points over 8,000 hours. What better way to understand the breeze than actually find out the data from it.”

Because sure, why not. At first, that’s the kind of quote that you hear and think sounds a bit excessive attention to detail. Conversely, having now visited a significant number of testing labs at three different Dyson campuses over the years (including a hair care lab where they have temperature-controlled cabinets of human hair and a dust mite farm), excessive attention to detail may as well be the Dyson motto.

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Alice Clarke travelled to Singapore as a guest of Dyson.