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What happens when a robot mows your lawn?

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The first thing you should know about a robot lawnmower (aka the LawnBott) is that it might take on a life of its own. From the minute the box showed up on my doorstep, my husband was itching to tear it open and see what it could do. Soon, word spread to my 10-year-old nephew that there was, in fact, a robot at my house. And that it could mow the grass.

In fact, that's pretty much how I lost control of the great LawnBott experiment one Saturday morning. My husband and nephew had the robot out in the yard in a flash. More specifically, it was the new Kyodo America LB1500 SpyderEVO, which is about the size of two shoeboxes and weighs 25 pounds. You charge the battery up for a few hours then as the press person promised "never mow your lawn again."

We sat the thing down in our small city yard (about 20x30 feet) and switched it on with a small crowd of onlookers. It went back and forth a few times, started beeping and shut itself off without mowing a blade of grass. This happened a few more times before I dug out the instruction manual, which is as thick as a small novel. (On closer inspection, that's because it's in three languages.)

My husband, who's the mower of grass at our house, then started swearing to me that he'd already read the instructions. So we began wishing for a remote control; then quickly decided the robot just wanted to roam free. Naturally, we headed to a nearby park and basically set it down in a soccer field. It beeped at us in incomprehensible robot language.

At this point, we did spend a few minutes daydreaming about the competition. The John Deere Tango E5 Autonomous Mower looks to be about the same size as the Lawnbott and works on the same general principle. It mows the lawn while you sip lemonade and takes itself back to a charging station when the battery is low. Perhaps best of all, the brochure promises that your local John Deere dealer will help install the thing, but, then again, it only appears to be available in Europe.

Before we could check our frequent flier mile balance, a quick email to the friendly folks at LawnBott uncovered our problem. Lesson one: Don't believe everything your husband says—especially about reading instructions. There's a wire you must stake around the perimeter of your yard that connects to a small transmitter box. This set-up defines the LawnBott's boundaries and makes the whole thing work. We mistakenly thought the wires were only for the optional charging station (we didn't have one) that the Lawnbott parks itself in to juice up.

Take two: The LawnBott mowed perfectly. It was incredibly quiet and nimble. In fact, our yard is probably an Olympic-level obstacle course for a Lawnbott. We have raised veggie beds, a patio and several flower beds. But the robot took it all in stride, moving back-and-forth to cut small, narrow strips of grass.

It also easily turned itself around when it detected our stone patio or bumped into a piece of outdoor furniture. But the hungry LawnBott climbed right over a small edging brick to eat a Japanese Maple sapling and started digging into a bag of mulch. If you'd, say, read every line of the instructions, you probably would have strung that perimeter wire around anything delicate.

This tree- and mulch-eating adventure, though, did remind us to keep the 10-year-old and our two dogs at a safe distance. An earlier version of the LawnBott was recalled back in 2008 after one person reported minor cuts from the blade. It gave us pause for a few seconds about letting too many robots into our house. Except they don't exactly seem poised to take over the world, Terminator-style.

The LawnBott is clever and useful, but seems to have only average intelligence. It mows in a random pattern, for instance, so it takes longer than a human to trim every blade of grass. Still, we pretty quickly started talking to it like a favorite pet. One who comes with a hefty price tag of $1,799. The verdict: It's probably more reliable than the kid down the street to mow a small- to medium-sized yard, and over a couple years, cheaper, too. Long live robots.

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