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Archive for Monday, May 13, 2002

Mow better blues: Technology cuts out the need for human labor

May 13, 2002

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For a few seconds, I was lying in a hammock stretched between two trees and enjoying the aroma of the ribs in the smoker.

Two of my teen daughters were trimming the hedges. Another was digging a flower garden. And my son had dropped by the house to manicure the lawn for the second time this week.

"Honey, would you like another bee CLUNK!"

The mower I was pushing choked on the tall grass and died, jerking me back from fantasy.

I popped the wire off the spark plug and tipped up the mower.

As I pried the wet green sludge clogging the blade, reality set in: It was Saturday and I faced several hours of yard work alone. The kids all had other plans.

Two of my daughters were gone to an all-day driver's ed class. Another had just left for a tanning booth to get ready for the high school prom.

And my son was on a road trip with his buddies to Houston to see a Dave Matthews concert.

I realized I should erase any notion of yardwork-loving children from my backyard fantasy.

Starting up the mower again, I wondered what technology could offer.

Robots to the rescue

For decades, inventors have been working on robotic mowers that you could either guide by remote control or program to turn loose on your lawn like a metallic sheep.

I wondered if they had come up yet with any that are affordable, reliable and wouldn't go beserk into the neighbor's flower bed.

An Internet search brought up two models one by a Swedish manufacturer that got its start making rifles and one by a former Israeli fighter pilot who cut his inventor teeth on weapons guidance systems.

Green gobblin'

Husqvarna, a Swedish company, was the pricier of the two, at $1,499.95. Its Auto Mower looks like something that crawled out of the Spider-Man movie's villain's lair, with its dark-green, manta-ray shape plastic housing (www.usa.husqvarna.com/node234.asp).

The Auto Mower is 28 inches long, 24 inches wide, 10 inches high and weighs 15.6 pounds. It's environmentally friendly, with its two electric motors powered by a battery.

The Auto Mower operates with a microprocessor programmed to stay inside a perimeter defined by a green wire. The wire can be buried 12 inches or stapled to the ground.

The mower cuts in a random pattern, staying within the perimeter.

Because it runs quietly, it can operate overnight.

How safe is it? When it comes to a solid object, such as a tree or some lawn furniture, it stops and goes in another direction.

If it's lifted or tilted, the cutting blades stop and an alarm sounds within 10 seconds unless you enter a security code thus curtailing thefts.

Husqvarna touts the mower as fully automatic, because it doesn't require human supervision.

When the battery starts running down after about an hour of use, the mower heads by itself back to hook up to the recharging station. Once recharged, it resumes its chores.

Yellow turtle

In contrast to the sleek Auto Mower, Friendly Robotics' Robomower seems like a big hungry yellow turtle (www.friendlyrobotics.com/).

The Israeli product, which operates in the United States out of Abilene, Tex., is bigger and much heavier, weighing in about 70 pounds.

It operates the same way. You stake down a wire around the perimeter of the area you want to mow, then hit the "Go" button.

It travels around the perimeter once, then begins mowing back and forth across the lawn in a V-pattern until it hits all the areas. For touch-up work, you hook a remote control mechanism to it.

Margo McMillin, owner of Cartwright Mac's in Wichita, said her husband saw them at a lawn and garden show in Kentucky and decided to be a distributor.

They ordered eight and sold six. But the interest in them dried up after a Wichita TV station did a story on them last summer and told about their drawbacks.

"They are neat and they do a wonderful job," McMillin said. "You have to have ideal conditions for them."

For example, you need a relatively level lawn of about 5,000 square feet or less and have few encumbrances.

Friendly Robotics also is making the mowers for Toro.

Under Toro's brand name of "iMow," they're selling online for $499, said Neil McCullough, owner of Fleetwood Mower and Rental in Lawrence.

McCullough doesn't keep them in stock, but has seen the Toro in action. (www.toro.com/home/mowers/imow/learnmore.html).

"I think that these are the beginning of products that are more environmentally friendly and user-friendly," he said.

Pushing the right buttons

I was looking out at my freshly mowed back yard and wondering how long it would take a mow-bot to tackle it.

"So, Dad ... what would you like me to do today?" Julie said, coming up behind me.

At first I was a little suspicious. Such selfless volunteerism on a warm spring day?

But then it made sense. And I realized I might still have a few buttons I could push to get my backyard fantasy.

After all, our family's newest drivers want a car.

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