MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This time of year, you may be spending some free time doing this.
(Soundbite of mower engine)
BLOCK: Mowing the grass is tedious and repetitive, just the sort of thing you might like to hand over to a robot. Well, you can. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has this report on the state of robotic lawn mowing.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: You know robot vacuum cleaners, those little disk shape things that wander randomly around a room? Picture something similar, cruising across your backyard, trimming the grass.
(Soundbite of commercial)
Unidentified Man: A perfect manicured lawn, beautiful gardens, green homogenous healthy grass. Thanks to RoboMower, a fully automatic lawn mower from Friendly Robotics that does the work for you.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: There are several robot mowers out there. This one is distributed by Systems Trading Corporation. Ames Tiedeman is vice president of lawn and garden.
Mr. AMES TIEDEMAN (Vice President, Lawn and Garden, Systems Trading Corporation): The technology is here and it works.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: At least if your yard isn't huge and you don't live on a steep hill. He says, you have to lay down a perimeter wire, like those in visible dog fences. The RoboMower roams around within that boundary, avoiding obstacles. Tiedeman says you can program the robot to go out at a certain time, mow for a while, and then come back to be recharged.
Mr. TIEDEMAN: You could program this to mow every other day, and you're done for the whole mowing season, once you set it up the first time.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: If these things had been around for a decade, why do you think they are not just like sort of on every lawn out there?
Mr. TIEDEMAN: Well, that's a very good question. I should say that we're growing every year. But you have to realize something: There is a class of people out there that actually like to mow the lawn.
Mr. BOB MARKOVICH (Home and Yard Editor, Consumer Reports): I have to confess I do.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bob Markovich is home and yard editor for Consumer Reports.
Mr. MARKOVICH: Sometimes I'm cursing and saying, boy, I wish I could do something else, I have to mow the lawn. And yet I have to tell you, there's a certain peaceful solace in mowing the lawn.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Markovich doesn't mow just for that peaceful feeling. Every year, his group tests dozens of mowers, including, recently, the Robomower and another called the LawnBott.
Mr. MARKOVICH: They really are more labor-intensive than you'd think.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says they can sometimes get stuck in places, for example. And the grass isn't left with straight lines.
Mr. MARKOVICH: They produce kind of an odd, random pattern that some may not like.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Plus, these machines typically cost more than a $1,000.
Mr. MARKOVICH: I think the short and simple answer is, it's still an expensive toy.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some researchers are working on automatic mowers that are more sophisticated and more powerful. Sanjiv Singh is at Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh. It should be noted that he personally uses an electric push mower for his own small yard at home. Still, he thinks robots could some day save money for businesses like sports fields, golf courses and professional landscapers.
Mr. SANJIV SINGH (Researcher, Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute): Those are serious players in the sense that they use their machines all the time.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But something like a golf course needs consistent, precision mowing over large areas. To do that, the robot has to know where it is at all times. Singh has been modifying professional-grade mowers so that they drive themselves and keep track of their location using GPS or other systems.
Mr. SINGH: Technically, we were surprised to see how difficult it is to be able to generate a very repeatable kind of a pattern by the mower in sort of undulating terrain.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's tested prototypes in places like Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers play. He says automatic, precision mowing is technically doable.
Mr. SINGH: If we were to build a mower for a $100,000, it would be able to cut the grass at most golf courses or most sports fields, but it would not have very good success commercially.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's currently focusing on ways of making the technology more affordable. Singh has done some of his research with help from a top manufacturer, the Toro Company. Dana Lonn, spelled L-O-N-N, directs its Center for Advanced Turf Technology. Lonn says robot mowing is kind of at the toddler stage now. Still, he thinks it is coming.
Mr. DANA LONN (Director, Center for Advanced Turf Technology, The Toro Company): You know, our products are getting more and more sophisticated all the time.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says consider Toro's current top-of-the-line Groundsmaster 5900.
Mr. LONN: It's has got four microprocessors on it. It's got a network. It wirelessly reports how many hours it's achieved. Computers are driving it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But at least for now, there's still a human at the wheel.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.