Multifunctional hybrid robot shovels snow and mows your lawn
By C.C. Weiss
July 21, 2014
Modern technology has given us many ways of delegating menial tasks to automatic equipment and robots, freeing up more time. Such devices can vacuum our floors, wash our windows, clean out the gutters and more. The latest automated housework companion is multifunctional, helping you complete two tasks that few relish: shoveling snow and mowing the lawn.
Shoveling snow may not be something that most folks do often, but it is arguably one of the most tedious household chores.
You wake up an hour and a half early because you know you have a foot of snow to shovel before enduring a slow, dangerous snow-day commute. It's not so bad at first, but after about 10 minutes, the damp, heavy snow lights your torso and every limb on fire – and you're not even halfway finished. Your mind starts to wander and you remember that after a long day at the office and slick commutes back and forth, your reward is to get to do it all over again, because it's a) still snowing or b) the street plow will have completely walled off your driveway.
Istanbul Technical University mechatronics associate professor Emin Faruk Kececi has an attractive alternative in mind. You still wake up early because shoveling and commuting are going to take extra time, but instead of dressing up like the little brother from A Christmas Story, you brew up a piping hot cup of coffee and sip it on your couch while your remote control robot does all the snow lifting. The only extra work you have to worry about when compared to a clear, sunny morning is operating a set of handheld controls – no more freezing down to the bone and back aches before work.
With help from a few students, the professor is working to see that vision through. The small team has developed a remote-controlled snowblower dubbed the SnowBYTE. Unlike many other household robot cleaners, which go about their business autonomously, the SnowBYTE is a semi-autonomous design that requires the user to control its movements. Still, it does clear the snow from your driveway and/or sidewalk without you having to so much as look at the shovel in your garage.
The small, all-wheel drive vessel has a hybrid powertrain with a 2.7-hp 33cc one-cylinder engine and four servo motors mounted at the wheels. The gasoline engine powers the snow-blowing system, which includes front blades and a snow-throwing chute, and also runs a starter-motor dynamo to send electricity to the battery pack. That electricity powers the AWD motors that push the tool up and down your driveway and sidewalk. It also gives the SnowBYTE an electric-start – no need to stand around tugging a starter cable.
The SnowBYTE includes an integrated camera system designed to give you a view of what you're blowing away while you operate it via remote control within a 1-km (.62-mile) range. You can sit on your couch with the TV on and still effectively navigate between the edges of your driveway.
SnowBYTE's designers have developed and tested one prototype and are making adjustments to the design with a second one. The first prototype experienced problems with its snow-clearing system getting clogged with ice. Its small, undersized tracks also proved ineffective at navigating in the snow. The second prototype replaces the battery-powered tracked movement with the hybrid AWD system, featuring toothed aluminum wheels that are designed to claw through slick, snow-covered terrain. The design is still awaiting development and testing, so it's unclear if it's more effective at clearing different types of snow.
The second prototype's blade system stands 8.27 in (21 cm) tall. The unit stretches 14.17 in (36 cm) wide. Its designers estimate that it can clear snow at a rate of 127.88 sq ft/min (11.88 sq m/min) and run for about an hour at a time. Because it's gas powered, you can just fill up the tank and put it back to work; it doesn't require battery charging. The optional underside blade allows it to operate as a remote-controlled lawn mower.
As much as we love the idea of a device that automates the snow shoveling process, we fear the SnowBYTE design falls short. The designers say they built it compact to save room in your garage, but the lightweight aluminum body and compact dimensions seem likely to render it insufficient for deep or heavy snow – the very types of conditions that would make investing in this type of snow blower pay off. Without an operator muscling and maneuvering it, we could see the small SnowBYTE getting stuck in drifts or wet snow and rolling over top the snow and ice, leaving a layer behind. We could also see the camera getting covered by snow or frost, leaving you shoveling blind.
The SnowBYTE is an interesting look at a smarter snow blower, but for now, it feels more like an undersized garage-build that needs some further development. It seems that a fully autonomous design would also be possible, taking not just the physical effort, but also the time, out of snow clearing.
We'd recommend holding off until that refinement is complete (assuming that actually happens), but the design is up on Kickstarter for a pledge level of US$1,800. The SnowBYTE designers hope to begin shipping the first units out by October, to have Northern Hemisphere-based Kickstarter supporters ready for the first snow. With only around less than $250 of the $36,000 goal raised, it looks unlikely that things will go according to their hopes, however.
That's OK; for that money, you're almost certainly better off investing in a manual snow blower, even if it means enduring a couple of cold, dark mornings outside. If you're feeling particularly rich, on the other hand, you could always plunk down $8,000 on one of SuperDroid's snow-shoveling robots instead.