Robots Are Everywhere! Even Mowing Highway Embankments

Well, the upcoming robot revolution may be arriving sooner than expected. At least, if I was a self-balancing robot spending a long, hot summer cutting weeds along the highway, I might start to "wonder why I have to take orders" a lot sooner. (Quotation is from "The Incredibles" movie, of course.)

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Anyway, a couple of days ago, I'm driving west on Touhy Avenue between Park Ridge and Des Plaines, in northwest suburban Chicago. And, as I come out from under the I-294 overpass, I see what looks like a big, yellow desk-with-wheels rolling around in the thick weeds leading up to the highway above. It looked a lot like a giant Roomba. You know, the Frisbee-shaped, housecleaning, robotic vacuum cleaner.

Well, there's no flies on me — yet — so I stop at a gas station in the next block, walk back up and onto the embankment, and chase after what turns out to be a Spider ILD02 four-wheeled, omni-directional, robotic lawnmower, cutting grass and weeds for the Illinois Tollway Authority. While the robot looked at first as if it was running autonomously, I soon saw it was controlled by a human operator with a fanny pack-style radio-control unit. Pretty cool.

"We bought a total of eight Spiders, and we've been trying them out in various locations," says Illinois Tollway operator Paul B. "We were a little skeptical about them at first, but the Spiders work great on the slopes."

This should probably be no surprise because the Spiders are designed to operate on grades up to 41 degrees, and have winches to work on even steeper terrain up to 55 degrees. Several versions of the Spiders are manufactured by Dvořák Machine Division in the Czech Republic, and assembled and distributed in the U.S. by Slope Care LLC in Orlando, Fla.

Besides its widely spaced wheels and light design for a lower center of gravity, Dvořák reports that, "Spider has a hydrostatic drive system that ensures fluent speed regulation, while preserving optimum management of the combustion engine. This combination of sensitive speed regulation and steering results in precise control of the mower, efficient operations and high safety."

The firm adds that Spider's machine travel method is patent-protected and ensures stability, even when changing driving directions on steep slope. "In areas with rapidly changing slopes and places where other machines can hardly move, such as wetland areas, Spider and its original ‘dance step' are unsurpassed," states Dvořák. Also, Spiders have a skid steering system that allows the rotation of the mower around its vertical axis, which simplifies manipulation.

The wireless control unit operates at 458.800-459.175 MHz in the U.S. and Canada, and has a range of 100 meters.

Control elements in the ergonomic transmitter portion allow Spider ILD02 to:

  • Start and switch off the engine
  • Preset the traveling speed
  • Engage and disengage the mowing device
  • Adjust the mower's cutting height
  • Change traveling speed and direction
  • Steer wheels 360 degrees
  • Shut down the whole system in an emergency.

Meanwhile, the on-unit receiver and power section on the Spider includes its radio receiver; electronic power circuit; servomotors controlling direction, traveling speed and gas; linear electric motors adjusting cutting height; and electromagnetic clutch and mowing components. Also, a remote control battery ensures a stand-by period of up to 20 hours. The machine is supplied with an extra battery and a car charger. Its charging time is 2.5 hours.

spiderlawn 500Jim Montague is the executive editor for Control, Control Design and Industrial Networking. Email him at jmontague@putman.net or check out his Google+ profile.