Green Bank Telescope located deep in the Appalachian Mountains near the tiny town of Green Bank

Photo courtesy of NRAO/AUI/NSF

Deep Space Observation Versus Lawn Care
| published April 7, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

Here’s one we guarantee you were not expecting, even in the weird news department:

Astronomers are worried that new high-tech, robotic lawnmowers and radio-controlled fertilizing drones will interfere with the deep space radio transmissions of the biggest telescopes on Earth.

Since Thursday Review shies away from stories about Bigfoot and faked moon landings, we can assure you we are not making this one up. Just think of it as Space Tech versus Earth Tech.

The short version of the story is this: A company called iRobot Corporation, which is more widely known for its popular robotic vacuum cleaners, floor cleaners, and other battery-powered household appliances, is now marketing a radio-frequency robot for mowing lawns. The mowers are guided using a device which calibrates the machine’s location on your lawn against an electronic stake placed somewhere in the yard. The robot simply guides itself—its distance, location, angle, etc—by constantly checking with a small beacon on that stake.

Once your landscape is properly mapped, the mower can cut the grass quietly and safely with nary a drop of sweat from the homeowner. This means an immediate pay cut for those stay-at-home teens used to the outdoor chores, though it may also mean teen-powered tech support when the grown-ups muck up the device or its applications. iRobot officials also say that the robotic mowers will have a measurable effect on safety and public health by reducing the number of injuries from objects thrown from underneath gas powered mowers, as well as reducing cases of heat stroke. The robot mowers will also, it is believed, reduce greenhouse gases by eliminating the use of oil and gas for those traditional lawnmower engines.

In any event, no need to break a sweat when the small robot can keep the lawn trimmed and neat, and homeowners can feel good that they are not polluting the air or adding to their carbon footprint.

But astronomers complain that those little grass whacking robots are using radio frequencies similar (if not identical) to some of the country’s largest and most sensitive radio telescopes, and can prove that the mowers create distortions which render deep space analysis and the study of the origins of the universe nearly impossible. Scientists for the National Science Foundation, along with the hundreds of scientists and science students who use the hyper-sensitive telescopes, say that when those housekeeping and lawn care robots are powered up, they cause immediate distortions which appear on the screens and computers used at the observatories. The astronomers and their teams want the robotic mowers to cease and desist, especially in areas near the massive telescopes.

This issue is not without precedent. Some rules already exist about the use of devices which cause distortion and radio frequency interference near radio-telescopes. For example, cell phones, Blackberries and some other handheld mobile devices are already banned (or strongly discouraged) near huge telescopes in Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Similar guidelines are already in place in West Virginia, where there is an “interference-free zone” around the massive Green Bank Telescope located deep in the Appalachian Mountains near the tiny town of Green Bank. Such quiet zones are also in place in many other areas where the ubiquitous wireless and radio-controlled devices of the human footprint can create distortion in the signals and data coming in from deep space.

The immense impact of city and suburban light has been a problem for space observers and anyone who studies the universe for decades. The interference caused by nighttime lights is called light pollution—enough ambient and artificial light can render the use of telescopes (even the primitive optical-lens devices—difficult if not pointless. Thus the largest and most technologically sophisticated space observatories are often located in remote areas, at high elevations—above man-made light and atmospheric conditions—or inside valleys or indentations at high altitudes. But even in these often hard-to-reach and isolated locations, radio frequency interference can inject severe distortions into the observations of astronomers and scientists.

For astronomers, such radio noise is the equivalent of pollution—just as ruinous to scientific data as would be toxic materials if dumped into soil or water.

Satellite TV providers, cell phone companies, and other communications firms generally find ways to comply with the requirements in observatory quiet zones. But in a world in which scores—even hundreds—of electronic devices can now be found in homes, apartments and businesses—new, unforeseen types of radio interference can be found everywhere, in drones, handheld devices, WiFi, smart TVs and smartphones, household appliances, toys and gaming systems, wireless products for smart cars, robotic floor cleaners, robotic tools for pools and yards, and now even in the gadgets to keep your landscape and lawn looking good.

Part of the problem is that the signals arriving from deep space are often extremely weak, whereas the signal used by your mobile provider to reach Samsung Galaxy Note 4 or your new Apple iPhone is strong. Likewise, the radio signals used to guide your lawn robot on its grass-cutting excursion is strong: by some estimates a billion times stronger.

But iRobot has pushed back, suggesting that such estimates are not only wildly overestimated, but that the chances of its household products interfering with telescopes are “infinitesimal,” according to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek. The company scoffs at the notion that its little lawn and household devices, using a small stake as a beacon, could interfere with the study of deep space.

The FCC is looking into the dispute, and—like hundreds of similar debates about the increasingly omnipresent use of wireless technology—must eventually forge a solution agreeable to all parties. As is often the case, some technology experts see a solution which may be workable but will require some compromise by both sides in the quarrel.

Warning labels may become mandatory on robotic products telling consumers that there are local limitations and regulations in place, and iRobot may be required to install a special chip which would disable the radio frequency device within certain predesignated areas. Ultimately the issue may become more heated in towns near the telescopes and observatories, and where the locals begin upgrading to more and more wireless devices.

In the meantime, feel free to upgrade from your gas-powered lawn mower to a lightweight, lithium battery-powered robotic grass cutter when the time is right. But check local and regional regulations first, otherwise an astronomer or scientist may show up at your door asking that you stop interfering with the study of the universe.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Is Drone Program On Border Wasting Millions?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 13, 2015.

The Rings of Saturn; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 17, 2015.