Astronomers: Keep iRobot’s lawnmower bot out of our back yard

Stripes mowed into a lawn

iRobot, the maker of the Roomba, is hoping to find another consumer hit with robots that can mow your lawn. But those plans are causing some friction with astronomers who are mapping the galactic regions that produce new stars.

Scientists from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have formally objected to iRobot’s early plans for a lawn-mowing bot, telling the Federal Communications Commission that a radio-frequency fence meant to keep the product from wandering away would interfere with their sensitive equipment.

iRobot has to ask the FCC for permission to market its lawnmower robot because the company plans to use a series of radio transmitters mounted on two-foot lawn spikes to define the boundary of an owner’s lawn, sending signals that would halt the mower before it starts motoring down the street. There are other robotic lawnmowers in the world, but they typically use hard-wired fences to keep the bots in place.

Officials from the federally funded observatory say one way to solve the problem could be forcing iRobot to remotely disable any lawnmower bots if they’re too close to an installation of radio telescopes.

In its official response, Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot says that while it “respects the work of the radio astronomy community,” the remote location of the radio telescope facilities and the low-power signals proposed for iRobot’s radio fence system mean “there is an exceedingly low practical risk” of any interference with the work of mapping the heavens.

That’s where things get a little snarky. In response to iRobot, Harvey S. Liszt, an astronomer and spectrum manager with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory implied that iRobot’s claims about the need for its autonomous mechanoid landscapers were both wildly overblown and utterly trivial:

“iRobot cited multiple statistics of grim accidents and spilt gasoline to assert the public benefit of approving its wireless robotic lawn mowers. However, there is already a competitive market for robotic lawn mowers using wire loops, which has somehow failed to stanch the stream of ghastly accidents and spilt gasoline that iRobot associates with the mundane practice of lawn-mowing. Robotic lawn devices are expensive, typically several thousand dollars, and meant for situations where mowing is performed far more frequently than in the typical front yard.”

It’s too early to tell who will win this particular fight, which was previously noted by Bloomberg. But iRobot’s proposed lawnmower bots are a long way from hitting the market. The company’s plans to enter the lawn-care field were teased earlier this year, right after a lackluster earnings report dinged iRobot’s shares on Wall Street. In its initial FCC paperwork, iRobot acknowledges the lawnmower idea is still “in the early design phase.”

iRobot has pushed into several other robotics categories in the dozen years since it debuted the Roomba, its original disc-shaped robotic vacuum. But most consumers would probably be hard-pressed to name iRobot’s bots for cleaning gutters and pools or mopping household floors — iRobot says that Roomba remains the company’s biggest seller.

Image via Flickr user AdamKR.