The timeless quest for the perfect lawn may be putting at risk efforts to unlock the secrets of the universe.
Scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have objected to a proposal by iRobot Corp. to sell lawnmowers guided by radio waves. The scientists say the machines may interfere with the ultra-sensitive radio telescopes they are using to scan the heavens.
“We’ll see the whole thing with our electronics,” said Harvey Liszt, spectrum manager for the observatory, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. “It’s a distortion.”
The observatory runs the Green Bank Telescope, set in a mountain bowl in West Virginia, where mobile phones are already banned, as well as facilities in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Together, they are mapping the structure of the Milky Way by capturing faint signals from light years away.
iRobot, better known for its self-guided Roomba vacuum cleaners and bomb-disposal equipment, has filed a request with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to use airwaves for mowers to be guided wirelessly from beacons on stakes pounded into the lawn.
iRobot, based in Bedford, Massachusetts, says the astronomers’ concerns are overblown and has volunteered to take steps to make sure lawn care won’t interfere with space exploration.
Chances are “infinitesimal” that astronomical readings on telescopes would be fouled by signals from two-foot-tall guide stakes in lawns in far-flung suburbs, said Glen Weinstein, chief legal officer of iRobot.
In its filing with the FCC, iRobot says its grass cutters could “make this necessary chore easier” and even cut down on the 38,000 annual injuries inflicted by walk-behind mowers.
IRobot won’t discuss details of the product, including price, said Matthew Lloyd, a spokesman. Most robotic lawn mowers are sold in Europe, where lawns are smaller than in the U.S. and landscaping services more expensive, said Dan Kara, a robotics analyst with ABI Research. About 47,000 robot lawn mowers were sold worldwide last year, with an average price of $1,779, Kara said. Existing models rely on wires to set boundaries, he said.
The problem for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory is that iRobot wants to use frequencies that let scientists track methanol, a substance abundant in some celestial regions, where its presence offers a “galactic beacon” pointing to star formation.
IRobot could fix the problem by equipping the mowers with a global-positioning chip that wouldn’t let the machines work in areas near telescopes, said the observatory’s Liszt.
The robot maker has offered instead to place a notice in user manuals and on the mowers that states, “Consumer use only; use must be limited to residential areas.”
Astronomers told the FCC that the wireless lawn robots should be kept at least 89 kilometers (55 miles) away from a radio telescope. The company says that’s “overstated” and once hills and trees are taken into account, no robot lawn mower will operate within interference range.
An explosion in wireless devices -- from connected cars to smart thermostats -- has led to an increase in such disputes, which the FCC has had to referee. The agency is currently considering whether to approve Globalstar Inc.’s proposal to carry mobile-phone traffic on airwaves designated for satellites.
Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment.