Why are astronomers so against development of automated lawnmowers?

According to an April 7 Bloomberg Business Report, scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have objected to a proposal by iRobot Corp., based in Bedford, Massuchusetts, 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.”

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 (FCC) to use airwaves for mowers to be guided wirelessly from beacons on stakes pounded into the lawn.

According to Bloomberg, iRobot in its FCC filing says its grass cutters could make the grass cutting necessary chore easier and even cut down on the 38,000 annual injuries inflicted by walk-behind mowers. Glen Weinstein, chief legal officer of iRobot, said that 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.

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. The astronomy observatory suggests that 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.

The astronomy 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.

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