One RoboMow went to mow a meadow...

The first commercial robotic lawnmower is about to transform Sunday afternoons for ever, writes Nicole Veash
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The Independent Online
THE WEEKLY grass cutting chore is about to become a thing of the past. A robotic lawnmower is to be launched this month, the first domestic robot to be widely available on a commercial basis.

Until now, robots have been limited to the factory but the pounds 999 RoboMow, which cuts in straight lines and manoeuvres itself around garden obstacles without human aid, is the first in a series of intelligent household aids coming on the market this year.

The RoboMow was developed in Israel using military navigation technology. Until recently home helpers, as they are called, have been confined to workshop prototypes.

Udi Peless, the Israeli creator and the man behind RoboMow, said: "We have the first machine on the market, but we are under no illusion that there will be a lot of competition from other countries. The army has been using robots for 15 years and I thought it was time to take the available technology and apply it to the commercial sector." Electrolux has already developed a robotic vacuum cleaner, which swerves round obstacles, bounces off walls and even gets under the sofa. It is due to be in the shops by 2000. And Mr Peless's company, Friendly Machines, has produced its next domestic robot, RoboTroll, a golf caddie which follows you around the course with the aid of a pocket-sized transmitter.

Roger Venables, chairman of the British Association for Automation and Robotics in Construction, said: "Prototype robots which can be used in the home have been around for years and many people believe there is a market for this type of development. But research costs are so high it is difficult to make the machines commercially viable." It was three years before the RoboMow was ready to go on sale. "People think that a robot always has two arms and two legs, but that is not necessarily the most effective way of operating," said Mr Peless. "We chose the lawnmower because there are fewer obstacles for it to bump into in a garden compared to the inside of a house. Therefore it is technically less difficult."

To use the lawnmower, gardeners peg a wire around the edge of the grass and connect it to a small generator, which at a push of a button sends a signal to a computerised guidance system. The two-foot high machine then starts cutting in one parallel line after another. Children, pets and trees are detected by sensors which cause the machine to detour from its set path.

Tim Mitchell, Friendly Machines' UK managing director, is confident that the RoboMow is an essential addition for any large garden. "People with large gardens tend to buy mowers to sit on. Our machine costs the same but you don't need to be out there when it's working. We've created something that involves the minimum amount of hassle."

But Monica Schofield, a service robots expert, believes the this new breed of home help still has a long way to go. "There have been attempts to crack the commercial market but the technology has made it too pricey, so they are confined to being developed for research purposes," she said. "It could be another five years before domestic robots make any impact in the home."

Part of the problem in developing robots which can be safely used at home is, according to Mr Venables, conquering the tendency for electronic machines to break down.

"In factories robots are tethered and kept away from people who work in designated safety zones. But if you have a robot at home you have to be absolutely sure it is not going to go potty. Letting a robot free in the outside world to do a fairly difficult job can be complex, especially when you need to keep the costs down," he said.

"We've got lots of other domestic robots planned for development," says Mr Peless. "Just think how useful a wet floor cleaner, a wood floor polisher or a snow remover in a cold country could be. The possibilities are endless."