iRobot enters the robotic mower market with Terra

Photo: iRobotPhoto: iRobot

iRobot, the brand behind the Roomba vacuum, announced yesterday that it is entering the robotic mower market at long last.

While most people compare the robotic mowers they see to a Roomba already, iRobot’s Terra is different than majority of the autonomous lawnmowers available in several ways.

The Terra mows in a traditional back and forth pattern. Photo: iRobotThe Terra mows in a traditional back and forth pattern.
Photo: iRobot

Other robotic mower brands tend to cut lawns in random pathways over a period of time until the job is done, like a Roomba does with carpet. Yet the Terra is designed to mimic traditional mowing patterns, cutting in back and forth lines.

Another variation is the fact that Terra uses radio technology to detect the parameters of the yard via wireless beacons versus having a buried edge wire that the other autonomous mower systems use.

“The goal was, first off, to do a great job cutting, and to mow the lawn in a way that people would find easy to set up, and would work in the complicated lawns the many homeowners have,” Colin Angle, iRobot’s CEO, tells IEEE Spectrum. “So, no boundary wire was a critical design element.”

This method of determining the shape of the yard wasn’t iRobot’s first choice. Throughout the engineering process the company tried many options including satellite-based GPS, which was found to be too unpredictable with interference from tree branches and other items blocking the imagery.

Next, they tried the computer vision that the modern Roombas use but this wasn’t a good fit either as the camera lens could dirty easily. Laser range-finders and ground-based beacons were other types of technology considered and eliminated for various reasons.

By placing beacons, the mower can detect the perimeter of the yard. Photo: iRobotBy placing beacons, the mower can detect the perimeter of the yard.
Photo: iRobot

According to Angle’s interview with the Associated Press, this struggle for a proper navigation system was frustrating and ultimately lead to the team giving up at least twice.

Angle says they started working on the project in 2005 and relaunched their efforts around five years ago.

Eventually iRobot found its solution for the mower guidance by using ultra-wide radio bandwidths through the use of beacons located around the yard. But even this method ran into to some issues after radio astronomers claimed the radio signals would interfere with their work.

The issue was presented to the Federal Communication Commission and iRobot was awarded permission to use the ultra-wide bandwidth for their robotic mowers.

“I can affirmatively state that no radio astronomy equipment is going to be rendered inoperable by a proliferation of Terras,” Angle tells IEEE Spectrum. “Based on the power of our ultrawideband beacons, we were able to ensure that we were not going to interfere. I think that if you’re a radio astronomer, any amount of energy is bad, including cell phones, but that one got far more attention than it probably deserved. We’re good, and SETI is intact.”

The setup process is meant to be simpler than other robotic mowers, requiring the homeowner to place the battery-powered beacons around the yard and then drive the Terra around the perimeter with a joystick and around any items you want it to avoid. Once that is done the mower will cut in a straight-line pattern, regularly mulching the grass.

The Terra has an hour of runtime and takes two hours to charge fully. If it runs low on power before it has completed the yard, it will return to its charging station and finish the job once fully powered once more.

Users can control the Terra through the iRobot HOME app to customize the height of the grass cut and when they want the lawn to be cut, whether it be day or night.

“iRobot is building an ecosystem of robots and technologies that help people do more both inside and outside of the home,” Angle says in a press release. “The robot mower segment is well established in EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) and has tremendous room for growth in other markets, including North America. With its ease of use and premium mowing features, Terra is poised to give consumers a whole new way to think about how they take care of their lawn.”

Because robot mowers are already a $300 million industry in Europe, iRobot will be launching Terra for sale Germany first and as a beta program in the U.S. in 2019.

Pricing is said to be announced at a later date. Whether it will be able to compete with the inventors of the first commercialized fully robotic lawn mower, Husqvarna, remains to be seen. Husqvarna has been making its robotic mowers since 1995 and many other brands have followed suite in recent years.

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