Of all the game-changing innovators over the past century, the engineers who have eliminated the need to sweep and vacuum manually deserve special recognition for their ingenuity and, dare we say it, heroism. (Pet owners: You know what we’re talking about.) Small, intelligent vacuum bots can navigate living rooms, avoid bumping into furniture, and know better than to try and suction up your cat’s tail. But how do they work?

Although their exact behavior depends on the manufacturer, robotic vacuums generally operate by cleaning as far as they can go in one direction until they bump into an object, turn around, and continue cleaning randomly around a room in shapes resembling the ones your spiral toy used to draw. Robotic vacuums also utilize sensors to help them determine where to clean, as well as which areas to avoid (the top of a staircase, for example).

More intelligent robotic vacuums can actually map out a room to plan out a methodical cleaning path and avoid obstacles before running into them. Some do this using cameras, while others use lasers to navigate. These robots detect reflections on the laser to determine where obstacles are in 360 degrees, allowing the robot to both create a map, and know where it is within the map. These robots track what has been cleaned and what is left to clean until they've finished that particular section of your home.

These robots may also boast dirt-detect functions that allow them to take note of how much dirt is being kicked up by their brushes, and give more attention to cleaning those areas. (If you’ve managed to knock over a potted plant, for example, the machine would clean that area more thoroughly.) Many robots also have a wall-following capability; using this method, the robot continues cleaning alongside an obstacle, using an infrared sensor to detect how close to the obstacle the robot can get without bumping into it.

Still on the fence about a robot vacuum? In the future, the carpeting industry may help convince you. Plans are underway to embed sensors under floor padding that will help these machines clean with even greater accuracy.