Apr 17, 2015 I Paul Seaburn

Lawn Robots Could Clip Astronomers’ View of the Cosmos

Looking at that headline, you may be thinking, “How can something on the ground used for cutting grass block telescopes pointing at the stars?" The answer just might be another reason why we need to keep a close eye on robots.

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A Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner hitting the wall

iRobot, maker of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, is developing a robotic lawn mower. The Roomba stays in the room it’s cleaning by bumping off of solid walls and virtual walls delimited by beam-emitting lighthouses. Since yards don’t normally have walls and are too big for beams, the robot lawn mower will be kept on the grass using a wire buried in the ground to create an electronic wall. That requires digging a trench, which sounds like a lot of work, so iRobot has a lazy alternative (it knows its customers, who are already lazy or they’d mow their lawn themselves). It has developed electronic stakes that can be driven into the ground at various intervals and emit radio beacons that do the same job as the buried wire. Sounds like a great plan, right?

Unless you’re an astronomer. It seems their radio telescopes operate on a frequency of 6240-6740 MHz and that’s the same frequency used by the electronic wall. What’s the big deal about that frequency? It’s the spectral signature used by radio telescopes to detect methane in space, which helps astronomers find star-forming regions and – potentially – life forms like us emitting and creating methane gases.

iRobot says its little lawnbots don’t need much of a signal and shouldn’t interfere with radio telescopes outside of a 12 mile radius. However, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which builds and operates radio telescopes, says they need a 55 mile radius. iRobot responded with a proposal to put a note in the lawnbot instruction manual warning customers not to use them around radio telescopes. Yeah, that’ll work.

The keeper of radio frequencies is the Federal Communications Commission so it’s up to them to decide and the FCC is never in any hurry to make a decision.

Who do you think should win this war between the robots and the telescopes? Who do you think WILL win?

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A solution that might satisfy both parties?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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