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Friday, March 2, 2012

Robotic Lawn Mower/Snow Blower/and Vacuum

As I have stated in my Bio I should have been an Engineer, and the day before yesterday I alluded to one of my many ideas I have come up with over the years, the robotic lawn mower.
The only reason we push a lawn mower, snow blower or vacuum around is because they don't know where to go by themselves.  Many years ago when I was young and the head of MIT's robotic department was building robots in his garage, and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were envisioning the future of computers for the world, I designed a robotic lawn mower.
I never developed the idea.  I did take a day off work and travel to Central Missouri State University and sat down with the head of the engineering department and asked if the school would be interested in helping me develop a prototype.  They were very excited about the idea, and we spent over an hour going over the drawings in my notebooks, schematics, and what not.
They said if I could put up a million dollars up front and into the development that the school would cover the rest of the development to take it to a Beta Testable model.  That was a hell of a deal because product development is extremely expensive and time consuming.  The chance of me coming up with a million dollars was about as achievable as me filling in the Grand Canyon with a house hold shovel. 
The funny part was they asked excitedly if I had anything else I had maybe been working on that was smaller in scope.  My only other really good original idea at that time was my vacuum ship idea.  The size I envisioned for the first prototype of one of those was about 500 feet wide by 950 feet long and standing nearly 400 feet in height sitting on the ground.  Roughly just bigger than a World War II Battleship!  I went back to my day job.  I wondered how Einstein felt as a patent clerk thinking about relativity in his spare time.
I could possibly find my old notebooks somewhere on my bookshelves or crammed into a corner of my garage and scan in the pictures and schematics but I thought as I am a writer now, that I would just do my very best to describe the machines, challenges and functions of each of them.
This description of the lawnmower blade setup will be very easy for the older members of my audience as we will remember the old rotary push mowers that were around in the late forties and into the nineteen fifties.  It had no engine, two large wheels on the outside and a handle coming back to a T shape to push it.  Four twisted rotary blades that moved via gears connected to one of the wheels is what cut the grass.  It basically cut the grass and threw the clippings everywhere.  My design starts with a smaller lighter version of one of those blades.  It was explained to me that the spark from the spark plug of a modern Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engine would wreck havoc with the computer circuits designed to run the machine.  So it would be run by a small electric motor and a belt to turn the blade – no spark.  The motor housing and belt drive would be in the bottom of the base unit while the blades would be detatchable so they could be hosed off for cleaning, no electrical parts in this piece, all mechanical.
I designed a plastic hood to cover and direct the clippings into a grass catcher that would pop on and off the top of the machine. 
In the body of the machine would be the 8088 or at that time the new and amazing 286 processor for computers which would be the brains of the machine.  In the middle of the base would be the drive motors for tracks which will actually move the mower around the yard.
The Tracks -  These would be like tank tracks which I surprisingly have some intimate working knowledge of from a few years of driving and working on the tracks of tanks.  The difference would be that these tracks would be encased in plastic, designed to snap off the side of the mower and contain only metal or plastic pieces that would be made up of suspension parts like what are used on radio controlled monster trucks.  These would have to have no electrical parts, completely mechanical and designed for removal so they could be prayed off with a hose to clean and set aside to dry for later re attachment to the recharged mower for more action.
Back to the base.
A further component of the drive system which will provide turning power to a shaft which will turn a drive wheel in the attachable tracks would be a shaft encoder.  Basically this is a wheel with slots in it attached to the drive shaft.  On one side of the wheel is a LED light and the other side is a photocell.  This will create a electrical blip which can be counted and feed to the computer and so many blips equals one revolution of the shaft.  By knowing how many revolutions creates one circuit of the track you can calculate how far that side of the vehicle has moved.  One of these for each side of the base.
A series of four microphones for receiving signals from sound beacons placed strategically at three or four spots in the yard.  The system will work very accurately with three sound beacons, but four would be optimum.   The beacons could be solar powered and left out year around or moved to the driveway for winter application of the snow blower attachment that would use the lawnmower powerbase and tracks.  The beacons would transmit a sound outside of human hearing range that the microphones would receive.  The computer would have a subroutine to triangulate the position of the base in the yard and make corrections to the steering program which would be using the input from the shaft encoders to figure where the base is on its programmed path around the yard.  Between the shaft encoders and the sound beacons it could have a accuracy of within a quarter of inch over the size of the yard.
The base would need a mercury switch setup installed so if the base is lifted to too extreme of a degree it shuts itself off.  I would also build in a mechanical switch into the tracks so if the weight of the base is removed from the tracks, i.e. something has lifted or raised a track off the ground it shuts down.  Temperature sensors located across the front of the machine looking for anything over 90 degrees in temperature would shut the mower down.  You don't want it running over children, or animals in the yard.
The base would hold the rechargeable batteries and the computer.  A floppy disk drive was to be used in my design but today you could give it cell phone capabilities and your PC or phone could call in the changes in programming to the base from in your house, while you're at work or wherever.  Originally the drawings I had used a 5 1/4 floppy drive – state of the art- for reprogramming or changing parameters to your programming for the base.
A retractable power cord was in the back of the base along with the recharging apparatus for the batteries.  The top would be the grass catcher which would have to be manually emptied.  With today's technology you could design a yard grass can to allow the mower to automatically dock to and empty the catcher – recharge the batteries and send it off on another run where it left off from the last time.  Always working and cutting the grass unless it is raining.  The 'grasscan' could also double as a weather shelter for the machine while it isn't running or during storms.  A humidity sensor and today's computers would let it figure out when to run for cover by itself.  Today's computers could even tell it to pay attention to the lawn sprinkler system and to wait for a certain amount of time after the yard has been watered before starting up its work again.
The front mower section was to be able to fastened and unfastened so after you sold people the robotic lawnmower the following fall you could sell them the snow blower attachment to hook into the front of it.  No catcher for the snow just an adjustable shoot with an added blower to help throw the snow.  I thought the snow blower could use gears instead of a belt and a much bigger and faster motor to power to it, with slight adjustments to the bade designs where it isn't empty space between the blades for more of a scooping and throwing action.  It would drain the batteries faster but most driveways are not as big as people's lawns.
Once these fine products were up and running and selling to the world.  I would come to my manufacturing team and explain how we want to redesign the lawnmower but make it about the size of a small to medium sized bunny rabbit.  We want to make it look like a rabbit!  Only this would be a robotic vacuum cleaner and we would call it the Dust Bunny.  It would spend its life plugged in recharging or whenever you leave the house turn it on and let it clean your floors.  I had not come up with any nice way to make this work with people who have pets except to sell insurance policies for the vacuum cleaner or make them cheap enough for those with dogs and aggressive cats to just buy new ones every so often if the pets destroyed it.
Losers to this would be current lawnmower, snow blower and vacuum machine manufacturers, and small engine manufacturers.
Future enhancements would be large Industrial versions for schools, businesses, complexes, and golf courses.  Automated Street cleaners to rove around keeping the city clean while we sleep.
I do have to say it is much more fun spending weeks and months planning out a story and working at writing and editing a story I can actually sell than doing months of research, planning, math and computer work for a product idea which would never see the light of day.  I pray somebody finds my notebooks someday and goes through them and says, "My God!  This idiot was brilliant and ahead of his time.  Why did he waste his life writing Science Fiction books?"  The answer to that question is it is infinitely more fun and less tedious than designing crap that nobody will ever see or use.  At least I can sell my books when I finish them!

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