Temperatures are dropping, and for many of us, that means it's time to put the lawn mower away and break out the leaf blower instead. Soon, we'll clear the last few leaves, just in time for the snow to fall. Welcome to back-breaking shoveling sessions, or if you're lucky, some monotonous snow blowing in the cold.
But next year, a single robot can handle your yard work throughout all of the seasons.
Today The Kobi Company is introducing the world's first 3-in-1 autonomous robot that can mow the lawn, clean up leaves, and remove snow.
We spoke with the company's co-founders, CEO Andrew Ewen and CTO Steven Waelbers. They met each other while working together at a financial institution in Belgium. Like so many innovative startups, The Kobi Company began while a couple of smart people chatted casually over a few beers. Waelbers had studied theoretical physics and was working at a bank, but in his spare time he built robots, drones, and other electronic devices. Ewen, an experienced entrepreneur with sales and marketing experience, helped push Waelbers to turn his hobby into a business.
One night while having drinks after work, Waelbers told Ewen about a recent side project. He explained that his dad had been bugging him to stop building drones, and instead make a useful robot, such as one that could push the snow out of his driveway. Waelbers says, "I already had a robot that I used for something else, so I quickly turned it into a machine to clean the snow."
Now, they have launched a company that is based in New York and staffed with several engineers. The company's first product, Kobi, is an autonomous electric robot that has three different modules that can easily be snapped into place to switch from grass, to leaves, to snow removal. "We made sure that the process of changing the modules would be extremely easy, to the point where even a 5-year-old child could do it," says Waelbers.
Yard work is annoying, but it can also be dangerous. People can be injured by the blades in traditional landscaping equipment and shoveling snow is such a strenuous activity that it causes heart attacks and hundreds of deaths each winter. While a robot that can mow your lawn and remove your leaves is convenient (and let's be honest -- entertaining), Kobi's biggest advantage is snow removal. The robot drives itself so that users can stay warm, cozy, and safe inside, knowing that an app will alert them if anything unexpected happens. I want one just because I'm lazy and I like gadgets, but Kobi is even more beneficial for people who are unable to perform yard work due to health issues.
When you first bring the robot home, you simply use an app to direct Kobi around your driveway and yard so you can teach it the boundaries and give instructions on where to dump the leaves and snow. Like many autonomous robots, it uses sensors and GPS to navigate. It also has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and mobile data connectivity, so it can communicate with your smartphone, as well as monitor the weather forecast in order to catch the earliest, lightest snowflakes as soon as a storm begins.
Ewen explains that The Kobi Company is trying to change the mindset of how people manage their yard work. He says, "Today, the average person waits until it stops snowing, and then you have a foot of snow, and it starts to melt and get heavy." This method requires big bursts of energy, which is inefficient and would drain a robot's battery too quickly.
"Everyone knows it's actually better to go outside while it's still snowing and take small bites at a time. But nobody wants to go outside when it's cold and dark to shovel," Waelbers adds. "But our robot doesn't care, he just goes out and shovels."
The $4,000 base-model robot can handle most yards and driveways on a single charge, although users with especially large yards will have to buy more powerful batteries. It can even climb moderate hills, up to a 40 percent slope. (Since we're talking about snow, in skiing terms, that means Kobi can handle green circles and blue squares, but not black diamonds.)
It might take consumers a while to get used to the concept of letting a powerful, bladed machine drive itself around their personal property, but Kobi's creators are confident that the robot is safe and accurate. It is smart enough to stay within the assigned boundaries and built-in safety features, such as a camera and ultrasonic sensors, will detect any objects (including pets or neighbors) that might get in the robot's path.
Waelbers says, "We've done risk analysis and it turns out that the chance of an accident happening is very low." When asked if Kobi is safer than manual lawn equipment, Ewen quickly answered, "Yes, I would absolutely say that."
Another added perk: since Kobi is an electric machine, it is more environmentally friendly than gas-powered lawn equipment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lawn mowers are responsible for five percent of all air pollution in the US. Additionally, when most people fill a lawn mower or snow blower, a few drops of gas spill over, and the EPA says these spills add up to a staggering 17 million gallons of fuel that drips into the groundwater. Kobi doesn't require any fuel since it is entirely battery powered.
Unfortunately, Kobi isn't quite ready for this winter. By the end of December ten customers will be able to purchase beta units of the robot. Their feedback will then be used to make any final improvements to the design, which will be rolled into mass production in early 2017.