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Latest El Reg project: Rise of the Robot Sheep

Autonomous, spinning blades, made in a shed - what could go wrong?

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After seven years of faithful service, my lawn-clipping droid Mowbot has had to be retired... and a replacement is hard to obtain. Rather than face an ever-growing lawn, I've decided it's time to unlock the inventing shed and seek some reader advice.

Robots were supposed to be doing pretty much all our manual labour by this point, from serving our drinks to building our houses, but even the basic task of mowing the grass is still generally being done by humans - and that has to change. So for this El Reg Special Project we'll be asking readers for help in designing, and building, a better robot lawnmower more like the one we were promised as kids.

For the best part of a decade your correspondent's first robot mower, Mowbot, has kept the lawn tidy, amused pets and frightened children in roughly equal proportions, but he's done for. Sadly it seems that while every other technology gets cheaper, or at least more feature-packed, domestic robots remain stubbornly expensive and lacking in 21st century smarts. So we're confident that with the help of El Reg's readership we can do better, and create a robot lawnmower more, er, socially aware than its peers.

Back-of-a-napkin specification

Those peers are not only ruinously expensive, but they're also distinctly lacking in innovation being limited to the usual round of cutting grass, and then cutting the cut grass again. We can't help feeling that a modern lawnmower should be able to utilise its wireless connectivity to tweet progress, report on the condition of the lawn and share its musings on the world with its peers: basically, pass the modern-day Turing test and be able to hold down a Google+ account.

Simply wandering around the garden at random seems criminally primitive; we should be able to ask for stripes on our lawn, or rude words to be inscribed in the grass. Having the day's weather forecast checked every morning might be aspirational, but we can certainly do more than wander blindly around bumping off obstacles at random.

Over the years several people have hacked together their own robotic lawnmowers*, from the original stake in the ground (around which the tethered mower spirals) to a converted Barbie jeep, and culminating in the 2002 Robocut kit. But despite a brief competitive spurt in 2007 things have slowed down considerably, and the time seems right for the unskilled and ill-informed to have a crack at applying some of the latest technology to the problem.

Wireless connectivity is obviously a must, otherwise we'll not be able to relax on the sofa with a Pimms watching the grass-level view of our robotic slave at work - but that opens up the opportunity to have the robot remotely controlled from an in-house server rather than on-board intelligence. Indeed a carefully mounted camera with a view of the garden could guide the robot to the longest grass, avoiding children, toys, or other obstacles to the perfect lawn. We feel that it would also be useful or anyway fun to be able to view a map and/or satellite image of the lawn with the mower's location, area mowed so far and other critical information overlaid. Naturally one would also be able to issue orders to the mechanised gardener, amend its planned route, use it to chase away interloping cats etc.

It also goes almost without saying that all this should ideally be achievable from one's smartphone, fondleslab, laptop etc on the other side of the world, as well as from the house, shed, the garden itself etc. The ability to do other things than simply mowing - laying down lawn feed or moss killer, dumping cuttings on the compost heap etc - should probably wait for Robosheep 2 or we'll be talking about having to mow the lawn ourselves this year.

Mowbot used a buried wire to find his way around, which is still there and remains an option, but we'll not be recycling any other parts of the old chap any more than we'll be building a chassis out of granddad's femurs. That also means anyone else who wants to have a crack can use our designs without having to buy a Mowbot first, assuming the idea of constructing something equipped with spinning blades and designed by enthusiastic amateurs doesn't scare them off.

Speaking of whirling blades: they too are a concern. Looking around it seems that nailing Stanley blades to a spinning disk was the preferred option in 2002. That's probably safe when compared to using a circular-saw blade, as recommended earlier, but we can't help feeling that there's room for improvement. A cylindrical cutter is obviously preferable, to get those neat stripes, and thoughts on the torque necessary to push such a thing are welcome. So our first question is about the best way to cut the blades of grass, and fold them to make stripes if it can be done.

Lastly, and most importantly, our beast is going to need a name, and one comprised of a decent acronym. It needs to be a name one would happily present at one's club - suggestions on the usual postcard.

We have a few months until the spring growth will need to be knocked back, which provides us with our schedule, so we're looking for thoughts on the practicality of a cylindrical blade, whether intelligence should be embedded in the robot or remotely managed from a distance and a decent moniker for the beast - please throw in your comments in the usual way and we'll report back once the plans start to come together. ®

Botnote

*Robot aficionados will be aware that some of the most capable "robots" in everyday modern use - the remotely-operated machines used by bomb-disposal teams worldwide - got their start in the 1970s when British military engineers cobbled together primitive early versions out of gardening equipment including a lawnmower. They were actually named "Wheelbarrows" - a moniker their descendants still carry - but they could equally well have been dubbed "Lawnmowers".

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