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Robots taking over (the yard)
[May 23, 2010]

Robots taking over (the yard)

May 23, 2010 (The Decatur Daily - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- If Dale Johnson mows his yard after going to bed, he's not sleep walking.

The Southwest Decatur resident is likely under the covers dreaming of the extra time he has to go fishing.

A robotic lawn mower trims Johnson's grass multiple times per week, and it doesn't need eyes to supervise it.

"Cuts every bit of it," he said. "Never missed a spot. Looks beautiful." It's likely Johnson is the first homeowner in Decatur to employ a robotic mower, but based on growing sales and the practical and economic advantages of the machines, the computerized clippers could become common.

Selling points Among the selling points for the LawnBott, which comes in four models priced $1,600 to $3,600, is that it doesn't need gas or oil and uses about $12 worth of electricity yearly for Johnson's model.

Other models are even more efficient, with energy bills as low as $8 annually. The electric motor also makes little noise, so it can operate at night, while its owners and neighbors sleep.

Clint Dawson, owner of, a distributor in Birmingham, said customers range from tech-savvy engineers -- including two NASA engineers in Huntsville -- to the elderly who never owned a computer.

Their reasons also vary, he said. Some simply don't like cutting grass; some say it's cheaper than buying a higher-end riding mower or hiring a lawn service.

"Obviously, they're not to the mainstream level yet," Dawson said.

"You can't just go down to Walmart and pick one up, but last year, while we were in the big downfall with the economy, we exceeded sales from the previous year. And this year we're exceeding last year." Built in Italy, LawnBotts arrived in Europe in 2001, and U.S. sales started 31/2 years ago. There are about 2,500 LawnBott brand mowers in the nation.

Its top competitor is Husqvarna, which has four robot mowers ranging in price from $1,300 to a $3,000 solar-powered model.

Used by state Motorists traveling Northwest Alabama highways may have already seen a robotic mower in action.

The Alabama Department of Transportation Division 2 uses a robotic mower on steep slopes as a safety precaution. The $38,000 machine can work on 35-to-41-degree angles.

Besides convenience, John Tarvin, marketing manager for Kyodo America, which has U.S. selling rights for LawnBott, said he expects robotic mower sales to climb as the government puts tighter regulations on the gas engines that power conventional mowers.

That will increase prices of conventional mowers and reduce the gap of the more expensive robotic mowers, he said.

And there's a growing clientele attracted to LawnBott's low carbon footprint, he added.

Johnson, who recently began a home repair radio show called "House Studs," learned about LawnBott while attending the Birmingham Home Show in March.

After testing it in ankle-deep grass, uncut for three weeks, he was ready to buy.

In the less than two months, he's used it, Johnson figures at least 100 passersby have stopped to inquire about it.

Mistaken for toy A couple last weekend thought it was a remote-control car and were stunned to learn it was a mower and nobody was controlling it.

"They go, 'Get out of here.' I mean they just laughed," he said.

The rechargeable, 22-pound mower relies on a slightly buried wire with a radio signal to set the parameters of the mowing zones.

The robot can only operate inside the wires, and will halt if the wire is cut.

Once it starts, it follows an internal memory of where it has mowed, though it looks confused because it cuts in a random pattern.

The robot also can sense when it's above previously cut grass or a concrete surface so it won't cut there.

Johnson's model can operate for several hours and clear two acres on one charge.

When power gets low, it automatically returns to its recharging house.

Smart, safe Once recharged, it returns to the job, with memory of work completed. The mower also will sense rain or wet grass and automatically return to its charging bay.

"It has an alarm that goes off anytime someone picks it up while it's mowing," Johnson said.

"And it wouldn't work in another yard anyway without the wire signal.

All the LawnBott mowers feature four-point blades that mulch the clippings. If it bumps into the obstacle, like a swing set, it simply mows around it.

Dawson said the LawnBott often is compared to the automated Roomba house vacuum.

And one model, the Spider, doesn't use ground wires, but merely relies on sensors to recognize when it leaves a grassy surface.

To see more of The Decatur Daily, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, The Decatur Daily, Ala.

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