Why iRobot's Lawn Mower Is Making Astronomers Mad

Which is more important: radio astronomy or manicured lawns?

You might not be aware, but all of our wireless devices (from smartphones to satellite dishes) operate on radio waves. And because of the potential for interference, all devices are restricted by law to certain radio frequency ranges. If devices ignored these restrictions, we wouldn't be able to make phone calls, watch TV, or in some cases even use the internet.

iRobot's new lawn mowers have drawn the ire of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Tweet It

But every now and then, manufacturers try to bypass these rules, and a legal fight ensues.

Case in point: IEEE Spectrum reports that iRobot, maker of the popular Roomba line of robot vacuums, is attempting to do just that with its upcoming robot lawn mower (RLM), which has the potential to interfere with radio telescopes.

The new robot line has drawn the ire of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which doesn't want pesky autonomous lawn mowers interfering with its telescopes. You see, these telescopes track the "spectral signature" of methanol in outer space, which helps astronomers track the formation of stars and the evolution of the galaxy, notes IEEE Spectrum.

This radio telescope is part of the Very Large Array, operated by the NRAO in New Mexico. View Larger


Back in January, iRobot filed for a waiver with the FCC, asking for its new robot lawn mowers to be exempt from a particular law regarding one of these frequency ranges (47 CFR 15.250(c))—specifically, the portion stating that "the use of a fixed outdoor infrastructure is prohibited."

According to TechCrunch, unlike robot lawn mowers currently on the market that use wires or barriers, iRobot's RLM will use wireless beacons. These could be interpreted as "fixed outdoor infrastructure," and they transmit over the same frequency range used by radio telescopes.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory doesn't want pesky robots interfering with its telescopes. Tweet It

In its waiver, iRobot claims it's unlikely that the RLMs will be operated near NRAO telescopes, let alone interfere with them. The company argues the beacons will be close to the ground, and obstructed by "ground clutter." iRobot says it will also note in the RLM user manual that the devices should only be used in residential areas.

The NRAO isn't happy about the waiver request, nor is it satisfied with the proposed user manual solution. The organization responded to the waiver with a comment, which provoked a reply from iRobot, followed by another reply from the NRAO.

This image of the Monster Galaxy at the Heart of the Perseus Cluster was made in part with data from radio telescopes. View Larger
To sum up the legalese, the NRAO isn't buying iRobot's claims. And while strict radio silence laws exist in the National Radio Quiet Zone, where the NRAO is headquartered, many of the NRAO's telescopes exist outside this zone. In fact, they're distributed all across the United States (and even in the U.S. island territories).

Given the fact that this frequency range was set aside by the FCC for radio telescopes, and iRobot was indubitably aware of that fact, it does seem strange that the company decided to use the frequency anyway.

The NRAO would like iRobot to use a different frequency, or use geo-location tracking to deactivate the RLMs when they're in range of a radio telescope. Regardless of the two sides' desires, all of the bickering has been laid out for the FCC. Now we just have to sit back and wait to see which side the government will take.

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