Draw On Your Lawn With This Autonomous Mower And RTK-GPS

The rise of open source hardware has seen a wide variety of laborious tasks become successfully automated, saving us humans a great deal of hassle.  Suffice to say, some chores are easier to automate than others. Take the classic case of a harmless autonomous vacuum cleaner that can be pretty dumb, bumping around the place to detect the perimeter as it traverses the room blindly with a pre-programmed sweeping pattern.

Now in principle, this idea could be extended to mowing your lawn. But would you really want a high speed rotating blade running rampant as it aimlessly ventures outside the perimeter of your lawn? The Sunray update to the Ardumower autonomous lawn mower project has solved this problem without invoking the need to lay down an actual perimeter wire. As standard consumer grade GPS is simply not accurate enough, so the solution involves implementing your very own RTK-GPS hardware and an accompanying base station, introducing centimeter-level accuracy to your mowing jobs.

RTK-GPS, also known as Carrier Phase Enhanced GPS, improves the accuracy of standard GPS by measuring the error in the signal using a reference receiver whose position is known accurately. This information is then relayed to the Ardumower board over a radio link, so that it could tweak its position accordingly. Do you need the ability to carve emojis into your lawn? No. But you could have it anyway. If that’s not enough to kick off the autonomous lawnmower revolution, we don’t know what is.

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Fail Of The Week: How Not To Build Your Own DGPS Base Station

GPS is the modern answer to the ancient question about one’s place in the world yet it has its limitations. It depends on the time of flight of radio signals emitted by satellites twenty thousand kilometers above you. Like any system involving large distances and high velocities, this is bound to offer some challenges to precise measurements which result in a limit to achievable accuracy. In other words: The fact that GPS locations tend to be off by a few meters is rooted in the underlying principle of operation.

Today’s level of precision was virtually unattainable just decades ago, and we’re getting that precision with a handheld device in mere seconds. Incredible! Yet the goal posts continue to move and people are working to get rid of the remaining error. The solution is called Differential GPS or ‘DGPS’ and its concept looks surprisingly simple.

What’s fascinating is that you can use one GPS to precisely measure the error of another GPS. This is because the inherent error of a GPS fix is known to be locally constant. Two receivers next to each other pick up signals that have been affected in the same way and thus can be expected to calculate identical wrong positions. This holds true for distances up to several kilometers between individual receivers. So in order to remove the error, all you need is a GPS receiver in a known location to measure the current deviation and a way to transmit correction information to other units. DGPS does just that, using either terrestrial radio in some regions and satellites in others. Mobile solutions exist as well.

So a raspi with a USB GPS dongle in a known location should be able to act as a DGPS over IP base station, right? In theory, yes. In practice… fail.

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Where Are The Autonomous Lawnmowers?

It’s impossible to know when society began to manicure its front lawns. Truth be told — cutting the grass was, and still is a necessity. But keeping the weeds at bay, trimming, edging and so forth is not. Having a nice lawn has become a status symbol of modern suburbia all across the globe. When the aliens arrive, one of the first things they will surely notice is how nice our front lawns are. This feature of our civilization could have only been made possible with the advent of specialized grass-cutting machines.

reel mower
Reel Mower [Public Domain]
It could be argued that the very first lawnmowers were live stock. The problem was they were quite high maintenance devices and tended to provide a very uneven cut, which did not bode well for families striving for the nicest front lawn on the dirt road. Coupled with the foul odor of their byproducts, the animals became quite unpopular and were gradually moved out of site into the back yards. Other solutions were sought to maintain the prestigious front yard.

The first mechanical lawnmower was invented in 1830 by a man named Edwin Budding, no doubt in an effort to one-up his neighbor, who still employed a Scythe. Budding’s mower looked much like today’s classic reel mowers, where a rotating cylinder houses the blades and rotates as the mower is pushed forward. Budding was granted a patent for his device by England, much to the dismay of his fellow neighbors — most of whom were forced to buy Budding’s mower due to the fact that everyone else in the neighborhood bought one, even though they weren’t actually needed.

By the early 1930’s, the cold war started by Budding and his neighbor had spread to almost every front yard on earth, with no end in sight. Fast forward to the modern era and the lawn and garden market did 10 billion in sales in 2014 alone. Technological advances have given rise to highly advanced grass-munching machines. For smaller yards, most use push mowers powered by a single cylinder IC engine. Many come with cloth bags to collect the clippings, even though everyone secretly hates using them because they gradually fill and make the mower heavier and therefore more difficult to push. But our neighbors use them, so we have to too.  Larger yards require expensive riding mowers, many of which boast hydrostatic transmissions, which owners eagerly brag about at neighborhood get-togethers, even though they haven’t the slightest clue of what it actually is.

Us hackers are no different. We have front lawns just like everyone else. But unlike everyone else (including our neighbors) we have soldering irons. And we know how to use them. I propose we take a shot-across-the-bow and disrupt the neighborhood lawn war the same way Budding did 85 years ago. So break out your favorite microcontroller and let’s get to work!

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