Astronomers declare war on lawn mowing robots

In a story that sounds like it could be borrowed from bad science fiction, astronomers are getting ready to do battle with the iRobot corporation over their new lawn mowing robots.

The makers of the Roomba, vacuum cleaning robot, iRobot is working on a similar device used to mow lawns. While it might sound like a great idea, so far, to most people astronomers are concerned about potential interference with very expensive telescopes.

The problem comes, not from the robots themselves but from devices used to tell the robots when to stop. A lawn mowing robot becomes much less useful, after all, if it also mows the flower bed and then takes off down the street threatening small animals in the neighbourhood.

FCC filings, originally spotted by IEEE Spectrum, show that the company is currently in the design phase of creating the robots. In February, iRobot filed a waiver request with the FCC, asking for a waiver that would allow them to use part of the radio spectrum to guide the robots.

The company wants to use stakes, driven into the ground to help the lawnbot learn the lay of the land, with the average person needing four to nine beacons depending on the shape of the property. The alternative, according to iRobot is to dig a trench around the properties perimeter to lay a wire that would serve as a guide.

The company wants to use the frequency band between 6240 and 6740 MHz, which is a frequency that several large radio telescopes use. Astronomers use the frequency to observe methanol, which is plentiful in stellar nurseries.

In its filing, iRobot says that it should be exempt from FCC regulations because it is only creating small, tightly contained networks.

In comments submitted to the FCC, representatives of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory said that the telescopes “…do a kind of celestial cartography that measures distances to star-forming regions with high precision, charting the course of galactic evolution.”

According to Wired, iRobot has proposed adding a note to the user manual for the lawnbot waring that the bot is for “consumer use only; use must be limited to residential areas.” The NRAO doesn’t think the approach will work. “What’s to stop the guy who spends thousands of dollars on this product from using it in residential areas near our telescopes?” asked Harvey Liszt, spectrum manager with the NRAO.

User manuals are, after all, frequently not read thoroughly and a note in a user manual does not have the weight of law behind it. For example, it is not unreasonable to suspect that owners of commercial and industrial land might want to use lawnbots and a warning in the user manual is unlikely to be a deterrent.

Liszt and the NRAO say that they need a 55-mile exclusion zone to protect the data obtained by the radio telescopes. The company says that they believe that 12 miles is sufficient.

It is possible, if the iRobot product goes ahead as planned, that the radio telescopes could begin generating bad data, without knowing why and without necessarily knowing that the data is bad. In other words it could generate bad or conflicting scientific data.

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