I once knew an Italian man who, while sojourning in Minnesota as a college professor, would stand and stare out of his front window on Saturday mornings at the throngs of men working on their lawns. "Every weekend, they cut the grass!" he'd exclaim, throwing up his hands, as perplexed about this custom as he was about baseball ("You mean there is no goal to hit?") and American-made T-shirts (they were all too tight). I tried to explain to Giovanni (his real name) that Midwestern men, in the tradition of their Scandinavian Lutheran forebears, enjoy pointlessly hard work on humid summer mornings, and that the scent of new-mown grass hanging on the dewy air was among my fondest childhood memories. He remained nonplused. "I don't understand," he said, "why they don't just cover the ground with rocks."
From the day the Pilgrims imported the concept from England, the American lawn has grown into an industry inhibited by neither logic nor environmental boundaries. Seed companies have hybridized grass for grassless soils; irrigation systems correct drought-prone lawns; pesticides and fertilizers have been tailored to the peculiar needs of the green, green grass we associate with home. According to the National Gardening Association, Americans spend $40 billion annually on lawn equipment, including 5.6 million "walk-behind" lawnmowers and another 1.5 million riding mowers. Sixty million people in this country each invest 30 hours of every year in mowing a combined 40,000 square miles of lawn.
It's no wonder, then, that the first offering from Friendly Robotics, a company founded by Israeli engineer Udi Peless to build robots for household and utility work, is a lawnmower. A sporty, curvy yellow pod about two feet across and twice as long, the robotic lawnmower, dubbed "Robomow" by its creators, navigates the grounds with the help of ultrasonic sensors and "sensitivity bumpers." It runs on a 16-bit Hitachi microprocessor—"overkill according to some people," says product manager John Bunton, "but we built it to upgrade." Operating it feels much like playing a video game—the hand-held control box has a thumb pad and LCD display; the bleeps and squawks it emits could well be the shooting and squashing of aliens.
But you don't have to play it: the Robomow can be left out on the lawn, timer set like an alarm clock, and it will follow a user-installed perimeter wire to mow within programmed boundaries and at the appointed time. It won't run over the cat, cut down the flower beds or leave the curb, and neighborhood kids can't lose a finger on it—the minute its front end is lifted off the ground, its blades retract and stop.
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"We don't recommend that you leave it unattended," says Bunton. "But you can sit on the porch and read a book while the Robomow works. It's a real time- and effort-saving machine."
The first lawnmower was invented in 1830, when Edward Beard Budding, an engineer from Stroud, England, observed a cutting wheel in a local cloth mill and applied the same technology to cutting grass. Before Budding, gardeners used hand clippers or scythes—backbreaking work and, as the industrial revolution pulled more cheap labor into factories, an increasingly expensive service.
"The lawnmower was introduced to replace a time- and labor-intensive task," says Keith Wootten, founder and chairperson of the U.K.-based Old Lawnmower Club (www.artian.demon.co.uk/olc), whose members collect specimens of vintage lawnmower technology. "Successive improvements and innovations have made mowing the lawn quicker and easier while the machines have in the main become more affordable and reliable," Wootten maintains. "The robomower is the latest in the chain of development started 170 years ago."
Predictably, Wootten prefers the hand-propelled mower with a cutting reel over the gas-powered mower of more recent years. "From an environmental point of view," he argues, "hand mowers are better because they produce virtually no pollution." (The EPA estimates that a gas-powered lawnmower emits the smog-fodder of 40 new cars.) And then there's "the joy of owning and using interesting pieces of machinery." In addition, "by using an old mower, you prolong the useful life of an existing machine and avoid the need to take up resources (metal, plastics, energy) on producing new machinery."
But Wootten's arguments weaken when used against the Robomow. Although he notes that there is some environmental damage incurred by the recharging and eventual disposal of the robot's 12-volt batteries, it runs quiet and clean, undeniably creating less pollution than the gas-powered mower. Even Wootten admits that it's an interesting piece of machinery, although the interest is less historical and more futuristic. And the Robomow is no ephemeral 'bot destined to be replaced next year. By plugging a computer into a jack on its control panel, a user can download updated software, noises and improvements into its processor.
A few years ago, there was a trend afoot to revive the hand-propelled cutting reel roller—it was better for the environment, proponents argued, and good exercise as well. Swank catalogs from Brookstone to Hammacher Schlemmer featured old-style, unmotorized mowers. But if the trend caught on back East, in Southern California, it was destined to be a bust. No self-respecting immigrant gardener with a business to run is going to be caught pushing a manual mower for the workout, much less the environmental benefits. But at $795 per unit, the Robomow might prove a worthy investment. I can imagine a day when I'll stand at my front window on a Thursday morning (garbage and gardening day in my neighborhood) and admire the swarms of pods at work on the neighborhood grass. On the other hand, all mowers—from the Robomow to the 1921 Qualcast E mower with sidewheel—may one day be altogether unnecessary. Scientists last December announced they had found a single gene that can be manipulated to stunt plant growth, presaging, perhaps, the development of a bioengineered lawn that never needs mowing. Then Robomow will earn a place on Wootten's Web page, and that aroma of just-cut grass will linger only in my dreams.
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