A Kickstarter campaign for a robot lawnmower may sound more lawn-trimming than ground-breaking, but RobotLabs, the company behind SmartMow, claims other automated lawnmowers aren't true robots because they don't adhere to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. In other words, they're not safe enough, it claims. SmartMow is different, it says, because it shuts down almost instantaneously when people or animals get close.

Though it may be a generalization to brand all automated lawnmowers dangerous, it's certainly true that some models have posed safety issues. RobotLabs cites the example of LawnBott, which was recalled in the US due to posing a "laceration hazard."

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Though based on the fictional works of SF author Isaac Asimov, the Three Laws of Robotics are nevertheless taken seriously among some roboticists. For those unfamiliar, the laws are:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

(Of course, every Asimov fan knows, he later added a zeroth law: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. But until such a time as robo-mowers gain sentience and launch their own humanist movement, the zeroth law remains a tall order.)

Any maker of dangerous automated lawnmowers could be argued to be shirking the first and most important law, which is not to harm people. Not so SmartMow, which should guarantee the safety of its human masters by virtue of two pieces of technology: a proximity sensor, and a cutting mechanism that can halt within a fraction of a second. Combined, the idea is that SmartMow quickly renders itself inert if people get within an uncomfortable range.

SmartMow has been in development since 2007, when version 1.0 was released. "Sure it mowed grass and moved around the yard like other robot lawn mowers, but it lacked aspects that customers really wanted and it was not safe enough," RobotLabs writes on its Kickstarter page. Though the safety issues were apparently addressed with 2011's SmartMow 1.5, RobotLabs was dissatisfied with the outer casing, which "didn't reflect the premium quality."

Now the company is developing SmartMow 2.0, for which it has developed an entirely new "race care looking" body, with all the safety features developed for version 1.5. For a product of this size and complexity, RobotLabs has set itself a remarkably modest target of US$14,000, which it says will go towards testing, calibration and funding.

At the time of writing only two of the available 10 SmartMow mowers are available. One hopes RobotLabs hasn't made a strategic error in not allocating 14 slots for its first-generation mowers, so that its overall target could be met through SmartMow sales alone. Though the top pledge sounds rather fun, it is expensive, and the lesser pledges are somewhat less compelling.

Of course, a lawnmower that doesn't hurt people does not automatically comply with Asimov's first law. There's that tricky second clause, "… or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." Perhaps SmartMow 3.0 will fit the bill. The mind. It boggles.

Sources: SmartMow, Kickstarter

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