iRobot, the Bedford, Mass.-based company famous for its Roomba vacuum-bot, has been floating the idea of an autonomous lawnmower device for years. But now the company is getting closer to bringing the idea to lawns across America, eliminating yet another tedious household chore.
Most automated lawnmowers available today typically require their owners to install cables underneath their yard to signal to the robots where to stop mowing, an expensive and time-consuming process. iRobot is going about it a different way. The company recently asked federal regulators for permission to use easier-to-install wireless beacons that could communicate with a robotic lawnmower, keeping it from going rogue and threatening your neighbor’s garden gnomes.
Still, lawnmowers are inherently more dangerous than vacuums. Roombas, after all, don’t have spinning death blades. How does iRobot plan on keeping the gardening gadget safe?
“Safety has to be a huge concern,” iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle told TIME, highlighting safety features baked into the Roomba that keep it from falling down stairs. “In order for a lawnmower to be similarly safe, you have to take the same amount of care. So you probably don’t go with one giant spinning blade, you probably go and do other things. You can make blades which are centripetally [designed], they’re lightweight, they’ll move so that they’re enough to cut grass. But if you put a hand in there, it might draw a little blood, but it won’t chop off your finger.”
Roomba needs permission from the Federal Communications Commission to go ahead with its plans because the wireless frequencies its beacons would use are shared by star-hunting astronomers’ radio telescopes. Angle says the FCC process is “ongoing,” but he’s optimistic the agency will support the company’s position that their system would pose little risk to extra-terrestrial science.
“I think the FCC folks understand whether infinitesimal risk of something is real or not, and they’ll go through the process,” said Angle. “We’re hopeful they’ll come out with a positive outcome.”