let's begin again – robots!

For years, I’ve had a (mad?) plan to build a robot to handle gardening for me. And so far, I haven’t built it.

This is not because it is impossible or stupid. Far from it – when you consider the task step by step, it’s reasonable, and could even be very important.

  • build a robot which is completely wireless.
  • the robot must be able to geo-locate and find its way to its charge-point when it needs it.
  • teach the robot to “see” rubbish such as twigs and leaves.
  • teach the robot to pick up rubbish and place it in a designated rubbish area. At this point, we have something which can be developed and sold, although maybe just as a curiosity.
  • teach it to see grass and to judge whether the grass is too long or not.
  • teach it to cut the grass, one blade at a time, and compost the blades. My plan here is that the robot is very small (20cm cubed?), making it difficult to cut a lot of grass at a time, thus making it easier to cut one blade at a time. Even so, cutting one blade at a time allows every piece of compostable material to be composted, thus making the garden neater than if it was cut by “brute force”.
  • teach it to recognise weeds and destroy them or cut them as close as possible to the root. your average lawnmower can’t do that!

These are reasonable goals, and at the end, you have a small robot (or a few small robots) which can manage a medium-sized garden unattended better than you could do yourself. Now that’s a product that would sell.

So what’s so difficult? Why have I not built it? I think the problem is that I was aiming for perfection – I wanted to go straight to the end product so was buying only the components that would fit in the 20cm cubed machine.

Unfortunately, I just don’t have the money for that. For example, the “brain” needed for the robot would need to be something like the Robostix, which would set me back over €300 euro which I just don’t seem to have lying around.

So, I’d dream and pine and do nothing about it.

The solution, which I have somehow failed to see for years, is to build something less than perfect, which does the job, and develop that into something that people can see actually does work. When that happens, someone will hand me the money to develop the proper thing, in the hope that they’ll make a tidy sum in return.

So, I’ve decided to resurrect some old laptops from the attic, in the hope that I can make them chew the grass for me. I’m going to stuck wheels on them and give them knives and other blades to play with. I’ve dug out my Latitude C610 and Travelmate 2420.

One thing discovered so far – laptops don’t like it when you leave them alone in a damp attic eave for years on end. The Latitude’s hard-drive literally squealed a few times when I booted it, and it would only boot once. Every time after that, the hard-drive threw up errors like it was being killed (I will also mention that the HD’s file-system is ReiserFS, making it more ironic…).

The other worked fine though – it has a few lines on the screen, but nothing more serious (the Latitude has no screen at all).

Tomorrow I hope to build the base of the robot for the TravelMate laptop. I’m going to try build two robots, one for each laptop. If I actually do it (notoriously lazy as I am) I’ll post photos.

Anyway – here comes world-domination step 1.


  1. I would suggest something that looks like this…


    Back on track though, can you abuse a Roomba? to get what you need?

  2. lol! exactly. In fact, Wall-E is almost perfect as a model for this. The point is to build a robot which can multi-task and do whatever needs to be done to clean-up after us, and eventually hopefully to cater for us.

  3. that has to be the craziest thing that I have ever herd you say!

    I think it’s impossibl… But then again I don’t know much about robots.. You would need a team of people to design the software alone. How could you teach a robot to recognize different plants?

    I think that your biggest problem there would be the lack of a garden with plants Kae! Anyway it would need to have a couple of things to really work…

    1. It would have to recognize where it is, so that it doesn’t go into your neighbours garden… Maybe that could be achieved by connecting it to your wi-fi. This would make it possible in the future to control it via the Internet.. Instead of using a remote you could use your laptop, even if your not at home!

    2. It would have to be able to recharge itself via an outside plug, to be soely indipendant.

    3. It would need to be both waterproof and wind resistant… In case it gets blown over.

    As I said in my opinion it would require a hell of a lot of work to function decently.

  4. it’s crazy item #556 in a series of #6567

    to know where it is, it could use a combination of GPS to get a general position (accurate to about 15M) and Cricket for higher precision.

    you teach the difference between plants using a neural network. here’s a simple javascript version which learns the difference between grass and concrete (eventually! – may seem easy to us, but is not easy for a computer). the same code can be used to learn the difference between dandelion and onion, for example.

    I was envisioning having a “base station” – a “box”, maybe, which had the necessary power sockets and could do handy things like maybe empty out any gathered rubbish, etc.

    point #3 involves lots of plastic bags 😉

    There /is/ a lot of work involved, but i think it’s worth it.

  5. hey there Kae

    The Computing Society here is looking into using those Gumstix chips to build a helicopter controlled with a xbox 360 controller, they might have some useful resources for you

  6. Thanks Aaron – when I have a bit of spare cash I’ll try get in contact with them and see if they had any better luck than me.

    I spoke with a guy in Trinity College who worked with them as well, and he had the same problem as me – he had to order directly from the American site, meaning that you’re not just paying for the board, you’re paying a huge P&P price as well.

    The day that some crowd starts selling Gumstix in Ireland/UK, I’ll be a happy man.

  7. Why don’t you just use your desktop for the “brain” and use WiFi/Bluetooth to communicate. Sensory input is sent to the PC/brain, motors are actuated from the PC/brain. Saves weight, power, and massively opens up the possibility of using off the shelf AI software for object recognition.

  8. Gno, that’s actually almost exactly how I’m doing it now. in this article I talked about some more steps I took. I have the chassis built for my robot now. it’s 9cm x 12cm, using a USB-to-I2C connection to pass commands to the bot. There is an RC version of the USB-to-I2C connection available so when I’m happy with how the bot is working, I can totally disconnect all wires.

    I’m waiting for a small model tank to arrive in the post, so I can salvage the tracks. After that, I’m adding a servo-controlled scissors and then I need to find a wireless camera that sends in I2C so I can use one common communication technology instead of a load of separate ones.

    An advantage to the desktop/mothership idea is that I can build a large laptop robot, which carries smaller slave bots around with it and disgorges them to do precise tasks that a larger bot would find difficult or cumbersome. The laptop would be the brain for the smaller bots.

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