By Lynn Walker
Today’s modern homes are so filled with smart and robotic devices, they’re running out of Roomba and spilling into the yard.
The suburban outdoors is a bustling frontier for robot technology. Creative entrepreneurs are busily inventing ways for homeowners to take it easy without giving up that green lawn and luscious landscape. Instead of taking care of chores such as mowing, fertilizing and watering, we can relax, tap an app, and put our smart devices to use. Here are some of the time and labor savers you’ll find on the market:
Early robotic lawn mowers date back to the late 1960s and the “Mowbot.” As the magazine Popular Science enthused in 1969, “You turn the bright yellow hump-backed rig loose in your yard and it wanders around as aimlessly as a hound-dog pup that’s just gotten its first whiff of a rabbit’s trail.” Mowbot rolled in a line until it hit a perimeter wire, then turned around and mowed some more.
Over the years, we've seen improvements. They include guiding sensors, solar power, and self-docking technology. Today's smart mowers even have the ability to sense objects in their way. Because they’re battery-powered, they run quietly and can be programmed to operate at night. These require you to install a barrier (like those for electronic dog collars), so your mower doesn’t go into the street or mow your neighbor’s yard. Robotic mowers are pricier than old-fashioned self-propelled gas guzzlers, ranging from about $1,000 to more than $2,700.
Robotic pool cleaners have also been around for a while, but newer generations are becoming more effective. They can clean the bottom of the pool and scour the sides like the little catfish does in your fish aquarium. They’re priced from about $650 to more than $1,000.
Plant sensors are taking some of the guesswork out of gardening. You stick them in the ground at strategic places in your yard or in your potted plant’s soil. They track soil moisture and notify your smartphone to let you know when it’s time to water. More sophisticated models can also track soil fertility and the amount of sun versus shade your lawn and plants get. Some compare your plants to a database to determine their needs. These devices are pricey, usually starting at about $30 for a single sensor. Multisensor kits are also available. You'll also find “smart pots” are on the market for your potted plants. They cost about $60.
Smart water sprinkler controllers are replacing old technology. These controllers can communicate with your smartphone, which can operate the system from wherever you are. Some track soil moisture and even monitor weather conditions so you can set your watering schedule to conform to the elements. Prices range from about $60 for basic models to more than $200 for fancier ones. Of course, this is for the controller only — not the sprinkler system.
This technology can also keep unwanted foot traffic off your lawn.. and make your property more secure. You’ll find a wide array of smart outdoor lighting systems and security cameras. Many allow you to control lights and monitor cameras on your smart devices. Smart lighting can be as simple as swapping out old bulbs for smart ones that communicate with your phone. You can buy smart bulbs for about $15. Smart fixtures and switches are more expensive but offer more features. Today’s cameras provide live pictures and will store video for later viewing. Most vendors charge a nominal fee for video storage. Cameras can run from about $100 for the barebones version to more than $400 for the models with all the bells and whistles.
If you’re considering going “smart” outdoors, you’ll need wifi and/or Bluetooth. It’s a good idea to think about whether the devices you like require a “hub” or can be operated independently. Check to see if they can be programmed to operate with automation control systems you may already have, such as Amazon’s Echo products or Google Assistant. In the future, automation operating systems may become standardized and even more user-friendly.
Lynn Walker has been writing for radio, TV, and newspapers for more than 50 years, covering business, technology, and government.