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Building a Better Lawn-Mowing Robot

New robotic lawn mowing technology aims to deliver freshly cut yards with little set-up.

by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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Along with doing the laundry and taking out the trash, mowing the lawn is an inescapable chore of everyday life (at least for anyone with a yard in the summer). Sweltering heat, pesky bugs and lack of time are a few barriers that might deter someone from venturing outside to cut the grass, but technology that will make it possible to circumvent the whole job is nearly finished at the Coordinated Science Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Junho Yang, 32, a PhD candidate at UIUC in mechanical science and engineering, alongside Professor Soon-Jo Chung (Aero Engineering), Professor Seth Hutchinson (ECE) and agriculture implement manufacturer John Deere, is working on “an omnidirectional-vision-based system to detect the containment status of a robotic lawn mower.” John Deere is funding the project.

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For Yang, this project relates closely to his previous work for the Office of Naval Research. He contributed to estimating the location of a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) that operates in a riverine environment and producing a 3D point-feature-based map of the proximate area mostly with a monocular camera. 

John Deere Tango lawn mowerJohn Deere Tango lawn mower.Image courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignWhile robotic lawn mowers are currently available in the marketplace, existing models require the setup of boundary wires so that the mower knows where to operate. For someone with an expansive yard, driving stakes into the soil and running wires through these and around the edge of the yard is still an inconvenience.

With the new omnidirectional-vision-based system, there would be fast and easy set up. Some of the biggest challenges to overcome are ensuring the mower makes clean, straight paths and monitoring disruptions, such as a rock or small object that could appear in the line of travel.

“Our system has the potential to enable no-infrastructure installations and perform positioning of the robot for non-random path mowing,” Yang said in an interview via email. “We are trying to make the vision processing and estimation more robust to disturbance and noise.”

Currently the prototypes are made from a John Deere Tango lawn mower, an omnidirectional camera and an inertial measurement unit. They are being tested at the John Deere Technology Innovation Center and John Deere employees’ front yards, according to Yang.

After three years of hard work, last month Yang and his colleagues presented the project at the IEEE International Conference for Robotics and Automation to positive reception.

The team is working to have the project finished this summer. Robotic lawn mowers equipped with a vision system should be available to the masses in the future, but details about that are confidential at present. “Our vision-based estimation technology will eventually help autonomous robots to help us in our daily life,” Yang said.

Thus, to the unhappy homeowner slaving away in the heat to maintain a tidy lawn, remember that in the near future, you could be propping your feet up, sipping on a glass of lemonade while a robot does the grueling yard work for you.