Lawnmowers vs Satellites: The real robot wars have begun

Lawnmowers vs Satellites: The robot wars begin

World War 3 is here - and this time it's being fought by robots. On one side, we've got the autonomous lawnmowers, their blades glinting in the morning sun. On the other, the satellites are lined up; with solar panels and canadarms unfurled and ready to kill. What are they fighting over? The most vital resource left on the planet - bandwidth in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Okay, maybe we're over-egging this one a little. But, in a conflict of the kind that's only going to get more common in the coming decades, Roomba manufacturer iRobot has ended up in a dispute with astronomers over a radio frequency band.

iRobot is working on autonomous lawnmowers that'll work a bit like its Roomba vacuum cleaners, but has run into a tricky obstacle. It turns out that spotting out where the edge of a lawn lies is harder than identifying a wall. iRobot's solution is to get homeowners to install little radio beacons around the edges of the lawn, providing a virtual wall that stops the mower plowing through into your flowerbed.

Hunting for Aliens

That's all well and good, but the type of radio signal emitted by the beacons happens to be exactly the same one that astronomers use to spot methane in space (6650-6675.2 MHz, if you're curious). Given that methane is often used as a telltale signal of biological activity on other planets, that's quite an important part of the hunt for alien life - and if iRobot's lawn beacons are used next to an observatory doing that kind of work, it won't be able to join that hunt.

The fight is playing out in the States, where iRobot has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to use that chunk of bandwidth and the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has filed an objection to them doing so.

iRobot says observatories are mostly in remote locations and that it'll tell its buyers not to use their lawnbot near one. While NRAO hit back saying that actually they're mostly not in remote areas and that asking your customers nicely to do something rarely works.

It's not clear right now who the victor will be in this little skirmish, but it's no doubt the first salvo in a battle that's going to rage on as more and more devices want to communicate without interference. World War 3? Maybe not. But smaller wars have started over less.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.