Robot vacuums have now been around long enough that you might watch one bump around a living room and think, why is not there a robot that could mow my lawn?
For more than a decade, iRobot, the company behind the Roomba vacuumbot, has been working and working on robotic lawn mowers.
"Honestly, this robot has led me insane," said Colin Angle of iRobot CEO after showing off Terra, the company's long-awaited first lawn mower. "It has been an obsession."
The flat square autonomous grass-cutter that Angle's company unveiled Wednesday resulted from a protracted engineering struggle that included dead-end experiments and a conflict with radio astronomers. was fielding the question, "So, when are you going to mow my lawn?" since the company began selling the Roombas in 2002. But the teaching and robot to navigate the typical American yard without destroying its flowerbeds was harder than it seemed first. "There was a lot of despair and frustration on the journey," Angle said.
Engineers threw every technology and mechanical design they could on the secret project, which they hid behind tall, opaque fences abutting a freeway just outside iRobot's Massachusetts headquarters .
The first problem was helping the robot identify its location so it would not get lost and miss spots. Satellite-based GPS technology did not do the trick; it was too "finicky" because interference from tree branches or nearby houses could render it useless, Angle said.
Also ineffective was the sophisticated computer vision that powers the latest Roombas. The technology did not work well because camera lenses can get blocked by leaves or dirt, and its machine-learning algorithms get confused as the mower bumps up and down.
The company made so many attempts that several early lawnbot prototypes could be spotted in the 2008 heist movie "21
"We had given up," Angle said of the project. "We probably gave up twice."
Ultimately, though, the financial pressure on the robot maker to diversify its product lineup raised the stakes. (After spinning off its defense robotics division in 2016, iRobot is almost exclusively a seller of vacuums, the main exception being the Brava robotic mop, which accounts for a fraction of total revenue.)
Robotic lawn mowers also began to proliferate in Europe, where they are now a roughly $ 300 million industry. Those robo-mowers, however, require homeowners to set up a perimeter of boundary wires to keep the machines in a confined area
Angle said that works well in Germany, where backyards are typically small, flat and rectangular, but not in the meandering lawns of the United States. American lawn culture also sets a higher bar for what a cut should look like: straight, back and forth lines are prized, he said.
The company finally found its answer in a radio technology based on "ultra-wide" bandwidths that would guide the mowers with the beacons located around the lawn, combined with the map-making memory that iRobot already uses for its vacuums. But this idea went on by astronomers who said radio signals could interfere with their studies of interstellar chemistry
IRobot eventually won the permission from the Federal Communications Commission to use ultra-wide bandwidth for wireless robotic lawn mowers – though not before Harvey Liszt , a spectrum manager for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, argued to the FCC that "there is already a competitive market for robotic lawn mowers using wire loops, which has somehow failed to stop the stream of ghastly accidents and spilled gasoline that iRobot associates with the mundane practice of lawn-mowing. "
The quiet, electric-power mower sports a pair of three-blade mulchers that are meant to work slowly on a lawn – instead of the typical one-a-week cut with a push mower, it can maneuver around a lawn daily or a few times a week – and returns to its station when completed. Users can schedule the machine with a phone app; if it runs down on juice while moving, it will return to its dock to recharge, then resume where it left off. Along with the radio technology, it has a variety of other sensors to avoid tin cans and other unexpected debris
The robot will launch in Germany, where iRobot hopes to capitalize on an existing market where Husqvarna's perimeter-based models , Bosch and other companies are already popular. The mowers will go on sale in the US in 2020 after an invite-only beta launch later this year.
Forrester consumer technology analyst Frank Gillett said iRobot seems to have solved some of the technical difficulties of autonomously mowing in the U.S. lawn culture standards, but it remains skeptical that there is enough demand among American homeowners, many of whom are either proud of their push-mowing work or willing to pay someone else to do it. "
" The bigger issue is still the cost, "Gillett said. The company has not yet disclosed Terra's likely price, but existing high-end robotic mowers can run well over $ 1,000