Since iRobot Corporation (NASDAQ: IRBT) released its first Roomba robotic vacuum more than 12 years ago, it has sold over 10 million home robots worldwide. But if iRobot has its way, your lawn could be its next destination in the near future.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently revealed that iRobot has requested a waiver of certain rules prohibiting the unlicensed operation of certain fixed wideband wireless systems. iRobot's end goal, according to the request, is to be able to market and receive certification for a robotic lawn mower.
Of course, this shouldn't be a huge surprise. Robotics-industry watchers have already uncovered related robotic lawn mower patent applications from iRobot dating to 2007. And just last year, iRobot Chief Technology Officer Paulo Pirjanian hinted in an MIT Technology Review interview, "Through our government and defense business we have a lot of experience with things that work in rugged outdoor environments, so you can imagine us going into the backyard."
iMowbot? Yes, please!
Lucky for us, iRobot's request reveals several juicy details regarding its new robotic lawn mower plans.
First, iRobot points out that electric robotic lawn mowers are not only better for the environment than gas-powered mowers but would also reduce deaths and injuries related to lawn mowing, minimize noise pollution, and improve quality of life for the elderly, disabled, and anyone who wants additional free time to spend with friends and family -- or, as I can attest as a longtime Roomba owner, to watch in amusement as the robotic lawn mower does its thing.
iRobot also notes that while robotic lawn mowers are already "well accepted in Europe," the only models available in the United States require the placement of underground electric fences. That requires digging a trench and installing buried wire, "a cumbersome and costly process that has limited greatly the public's adoption of [robotic lawn mower] technology."
As a result, iRobot states its own robotic lawn mower -- which has yet to be named -- "will not require buried wire, but instead will rely on stakes (i.e. portable beacons) in the yard that transmit to the robot to map out and stay within the designated mowing area."
By iRobot's estimation, the typical user with a lawn between one quarter and one third of an acre would require between four and nine battery-powered stakes. And after an initial setup procedure "of a few minutes' duration," those beacons would communicate only with the robot via unique addressing. That means each user's beacons are capable of talking only to their respective robot, even if several other neighbors operate their own robotic lawn mowers at the same time.
What to expect next
If you were hoping to unleash a robotic lawn mower from iRobot in time for this summer, however, you're probably out of luck. iRobot states that the product is currently in the "early design phase," so it's unclear exactly when it will be ready for mainstream adoption. Either way, that day couldn't come soon enough to appease iRobot skeptics, who worry about the fact that its fast-growing Roomba line currently generates around 85% of total sales.
But in the end, it's hardly surprising that iRobot would want to get this right the first time. iRobot CEO Colin Angle has made it clear that he prefers baby steps in robotics, and to "pick applications that have real concrete value to customers, deliver on or exceed their expectations, and move on." With that in mind, you can bet iRobot will introduce the mower at a relatively attractive price to maximize both profits and its value proposition.
I don't know about you, but I'll still be holding my shares of iRobot when that happens.
Steve Symington owns shares of iRobot. The Motley Fool recommends iRobot. The Motley Fool owns shares of iRobot. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.