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Opinion

Get On My Lawn! How Autonomous Lawn Mowers Could Help Neighborhoods Flourish

An illustration of a red driverless lawn mower making its way across a grassy green front lawn.

I recently spotted a new arrival next door. My neighbor had brought home a shiny, happy looking robotic lawnmower and turned it loose in the backyard. For hours, I watched it chug back and forth, slicing up blades of grass. I was entranced and have now spent weeks studying the cute little bot. It turns out that there’s a lot to the history of this unassuming technology, and a lot that shines a light on the future of autonomy.

First off, these things are nothing new

That the autonomous lawn mower just celebrated its 53rd birthday should be of some comfort to those of you imagining fleets of untested robots descending upon your lawn. Today’s robo mower shares a lot of similarities with its progenitor.

On October 20, 1969, a New Yorker named S. Lawrence Bellinger filed a patent for a “self-propelled random motion lawnmower.” Bellinger called his creation the Mowbot. This yellow, Roomba-like device was both battery- and electric-powered. In order to not go rogue in the neighborhood, the Mowbot had to be physically geofenced — a UF 14-gauge “boundary wire” needed to be buried an inch in the ground around the perimeter of one’s yard. “They say the best part of owning a Mobot,” Popular Mechanics wrote in an article that same year, “is sitting on the terrace, watching it helter-skelter around the yard chasing that invisible rabbit.”

Unfortunately, Bellinger was too ahead of its time. The raw materials just weren’t there. The Mowbot weighed 125 pounds and cost $800 — $5800 in today’s dollars. It didn’t back up. It needed six feet of clearance to turn around. It tended to uncontrollably freewheel down hills.

In 1969, Life magazine offered another reason for the Mowbot’s failure: “The robot mower defeats the whole purpose of lawn care because the ‘master’ of the house must be seen to mow…. Only its high priest, the American husband, may set foot on it, and then only to perform the sacred rites: mowing with a mower, edging with an edger, sprinkling with a hose, and rooting with a rooter to purify the temple of profane weeds.” (Hoping this is sarcasm.)

It would be another 25 years before new life was breathed into the dreams of any lingering autonomous lawn mower fans. In 1995, the Swedish power equipment company Husqvarna introduced the Solar Mower, which, in addition to being powered by the sun, was fully automated. The company, along with others, has since created a handful of driverless mower models. Interestingly, today’s autonomous mowers don’t look or even operate that much differently from Bellinger’s Mowbot. Yes, you still have to bury a boundary wire. The thing still tackles the yard in a completely helter-skelter manner. It does, however, back up — and doesn’t careen down inclines.

But wait! They’re getting smarter

Burying a bunch of wire around your property doesn’t exactly call to mind autonomy, especially if you’re someone who likes to move around flower and garden beds each year.

Husqvarna and its start-up competitors understand this and have drawn inspiration from not only robo vacuums like Shark and Roomba, but also cutting-edge driverless car companies, like Argo AI.

Let’s be clear, Argo’s self-driving technology is more sophisticated, using proprietary laser sensors to safely navigate cars on the road.

But for the lower stakes — but no less important — game of avoiding the family daffodils, a handful of players have entered the field: Husqvarna, Ambrogio, Eeve, Graze, LF Intelligence, Belrobotics, Segway, and iRobot, are now using technology like GPS-RTK, HD cameras, ultrasonic sensors and AI to build mowers that don’t require the installation of physical perimeters. Currently, only Ambrogio is producing a residential-grade model at a commercially viable scale.

Believe it or not, there’s a robust robo mower blogging ecosystem out there, and many of these enthusiasts are claiming 2022 is the year of the virtual boundary autonomous mower.

So what, then, can we dream up next?

Strictly technologically speaking, the sky’s the limit. Look no further than the Dutch company Lely, which has created the Discovery Collector, essentially a robot vacuum for cow manure on barn floors.

Let’s go big here. Imagine being my neighbor — the person with the only robo mower on the block and quite possibly in the entire community. But maybe they’d like to share the autonomous wealth with the neighborhood. Could then there be a neighborhood mower, for which everyone shares the cost?

Whereas there were once children such as myself pushing mowers down the sidewalk from one house to the next, perhaps in the near future neighbors can simply use a sharing app that allows an autonomous mower to move between houses, courteously cutting lawns along the way. Perhaps the children can now have the time to read some Shakespeare or tackle complex math problems or wash the dishes.

If the kids are occupied with their newfound tasks, what then should we adults do? A cocktail in the lawn chair comes to mind, but okay, maybe we can then focus on weeding the flower bed and vegetable garden, cleaning the garage, painting the house, and so on.

And if neighbors who might not otherwise communicate are now in regular contact thanks to the universal human impulse to keep grass manicured, what might that mean for the social currency of a community? You don’t need me to tell you we desperately need to find some common, uncontroversial ground. Perhaps the autonomous mower is the ticket. The bonus is that, if it screws up a cut, the finger pointing can be directed at the robot, not each other. I smell a Nobel Peace Prize in the making here.

Seriously though, these things could make a difference in some people’s lives

Do you know how I happened upon my neighbor’s autonomous mower in the first place? Because of my e-bike. An old hip injury had made pedaling a bike difficult for me. When electric bikes started popping up everywhere recently, I jumped right in. I’ve taken more bike rides in the last couple years than I had in the previous several decades combined.

While I’m in no way injured so much as to be unable to mow my lawn, many people are. And maybe they can’t afford to pay someone to do the job for them. An autonomous mower would, well, give them a prideful dose of autonomy. And if the whole neighborhood was able to share the wealth, maybe other means of help would come the way of those who need it most.

Safely navigating from point A to B should be just the beginning of an autonomous technology’s capabilities. What will make it special is the ways in which it helps communities navigate the uncharted waters of the future. And if it’s something as simple as a lawn mower that can help us get there, I’m all for it.

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