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Why Astronomers Are Fighting Back Against Robotic Lawnmowers

It’s a feud fueled by radio frequencies

(Tracy Packer Photography/Ocean/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Having a robot do the yard work sounds like a dream for many. But for astronomers, it’s a nightmare. Roomba’s maker has designed a new robotic lawnmower, and while astronomers might appreciate its diligent yard work, they’re fighting against its use. It all comes down to an argument over radio frequencies.

The strange showdown was precipitated by a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), reports Davey Alba for Wired. In order to keep the new robot on the lawn, users will need to set up a perimeter using radio beacons driven into the ground. Normally, that kind of setup would require an FCC filing. But Roomba’s parent company iRobot knows full well that every user isn't going to want to have to file for FCC clearance, so they asked for an exemption to the FCC laws. That was when astronomers got involved, because the proposed frequency band for the little mowers (6240-6740 MHz) is the same as the one astronomers use for radio telescopes.

iRobot argues that since use of the new robot will be restricted to lawns, it won’t interfere with telescopes at observatories. To be safe, the company proposed putting a disclaimer in the user manual warning consumers to restrict use of the device to residential areas only. But astronomers who use the frequencies to observe methanol in far-flung galaxies poo-pooed this workaround, reports Alba. They say iRobot won’t be able to control how or where consumers use the devices—and that could endanger radio telescopes that are “charting the course of galactic evolution.”

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