Mowing on Autopilot
By Charles J. Murray
With the introduction of the RoboMower in the U.S., two Israeli inventors may have opened a new door to the fledgling home robotics market.
Udi Peless dislikes lawn mowing. Strange then that Peless — who has made his mark as an F-16 pilot and a highly successful entrepreneur — should now be living a life that revolves around lawn mowers. And it's even stranger that Peless is doing so in Israel, a land not known for expanses of abundant, green, residential lawns. But Peless, who holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, also happens to know a thing or two about navigation, which is why his vision of landscaping involves lawn mowers on autopilot. Because of his distaste for mowing, Peless spent the past decade working with his partner, Shai Abramson, on the design of a stubby lawn mower that combines electric motors, sensors, software and a microprocessor to automate the process of grass cutting. Their start-up company's high-end RL1000 RoboMower, which recently began to sell through Sears.com in the U.S., is so autonomous it can mow for an entire summer without a shred of human intervention, docking and undocking itself from its battery charger, and independently finding its way around the yard each week. Peless and Abramson, along with their U.S. distributor, believe such mowing systems will emerge as a must-have home automation technology in the next decade, much as garage door openers did in the 1960s. "Some day, when you buy a house, you'll say, 'I don't want to buy a house without a mowing system,'" says Ames Tiedeman, national sales manager for Systems Trading Corp., the U.S. distributor for the RoboMower. ... Friendly Robotics has since managed to sell more than 50,000 mowers, largely in Europe and in the U.S., and it has committed to making the product by itself, at least for now. When market interest in robotic mowing rises, the company's principals say they'll reconsider licensing. Until that time, distributors of the RL1000 and the smaller RL850 say they're hoping for big sales volumes. "There's 6 million lawn mowers sold every year in the U.S.," notes Tiedeman of U.S.-based Systems Trading Corp. "And our goal is to get 10 percent of that market." Peless and Abramson contend that volume will help drive down the price of the RL1000, which now retails at $1,800, and the RL850, which retails at $1,200. Whether or not the start-up is able to boost its sales figures soon, its founders believe they have opened a new door in the fledgling home robotics market. "This is a whole new category," Abramson says. "It's not like making televisions or refrigerators. There was a psychological gap that had to be crossed here and now that consumers have begun to cross it, they won't go back."