Within a few years, a self-powered robot could be mowing your lawn

Around the time of World War II, fuel rations caused Europeans to look to alternative means to power their cars. Some attached hulking tanks to the back of their car that burned wood chips as fuel.

Wood powered car

Several years ago, George Mason University graduate student Jason Force had a modern idea for the technology: Because grass pellets are just as good as wood chips for this kind of system, why not create a lawn mower with it? It could power itself with the grass it harvested. It could also be self-guiding, like a Roomba, so users would not longer have to mow their own lawn.

He got to work on the self-guiding aspect five years ago. The idea grew into a startup called EcoMow Technologies. Its team began working on the chemical engineering last year.

Force tested the robot among consumers and found that they loved the idea. But investors hated it. Developing software for this type of robot is highly complicated and will be a big challenge for the EcoMow team.

“Because it’s such a major departure from what the public has seen before, they consider it too risky,” Force said in an interview. “A lot of work would have to go into this product to make it safe; don’t run over your pets or children, don’t run into the street and cause an accident. The concern was we would get to the end of the $2 million development cycle and the customers would just decide they didn’t like it.”

For now, EcoMow is pursuing another product: a larger mower that will harvest hay fields for fuel pellets, which can then be sold. It won’t have as sophisticated of a guidance system, but it uses the same chemistry as the consumer model and, more importantly, has found support among investors. EcoMow plans to produce a prototype by April and sell it to customers next year.

Force said he hasn’t forgotten about the consumer mower. He still plans to develop it, likely beginning in 2016. A small model designed to manicure lawns less than an acre in size might cost $500 and weigh less than 10 pounds. A larger model for a 10-acre property might cost $2,000 to $3,000.

An EcoMow prototype. Photo courtesy of Melissa Cannarozzi.

An EcoMow prototype. Photo courtesy of Melissa Cannarozzi.

Force also sees the EcoMow as a potentially powerful tool in developing nations. Instead of building a power plant and biomass processor, plus buying a harvester to collect biomass, communities could use a version of the EcoMow for all three.

“An application I’m pursuing is having little micro grids set up in East Africa where the units would go harvest during the night and then come back and plug themselves in to a power unit during the day and supply power to the local region during the day,” he said. “It would be operating all the time, but dividing its time between power generation and harvesting. In this capacity it would lower the barrier for developing nations to have a new energy economy in areas that don’t currently have one.”