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IPFS News Link • Techno Gadgets

The Roomba for Lawns Is Really Pissing Off Astronomers

• http://www.wired.com

Who can hate a Roomba? Astronomers, that's who.

The robotic vacuums we all know and love ensure we don't have to clean our own homes ourselves to get them spotless. (God forbid.) Now, the Roomba's maker, iRobot, wants to do for lawn care what it did for vacuuming. According to filings with the FCC spotted by IEEE Spectrum, iRobot is designing a robotic mower—news that should elate lazy people the world over.

But one group is really, really unhappy about this boon to the slothful: Astronomers. Some of them are so upset, in fact, that their objections might put the kibosh on the whole thing. How could this be? In a scenario that sounds straight out of the Golden Age of scifi, it all comes down to robots versus telescopes, and how they all communicate.

The saga started in February, when iRobot filed a waiver request with the FCC seeking approval to use a portion of the radio spectrum to help guide its robomower. The problem with grass-cutting bots, according to iRobot's filing, is the only way to get them to work is to dig a trench along the perimeter of a lawn and install a wire that creates the electronic fence needed to ensure the automaton don't wander beyond the property line.

As a less arduous solution, iRobot proposes using stakes, driven into the ground, to act as beacons. The beacons will talk to the lawnbot, helping it map the area and stay within the designated boundaries. A typical user with a typical lawn (a quarter to a third of an acre) might need between four and nine beacons.

But the system requires special permission from the FCC due to it restrictions on fixed outdoor infrastructure. In a nutshell, the FCC doesn't want people creating ad hoc networks of transmitters, which could interfere with existing authorized services like cellular and GPS systems. In its filings, iRobot says it should be exempt because it doesn't set out to establish a broad communications network–its lawnbot networks would be tightly contained.

Astronomers say that's not good enough. The frequency band proposed for the lawnbot (6240-6740 MHz) is the very same one several enormous radio telescopes operate on. Astronomers want the FCC to protect their share of the radio spectrum so their telescopes continue observing methanol, which abounds in regions where celestial bodies are forming.


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