While many will soon be forced to get out snow shovels and snow blowers to clear their sidewalks and driveways, perhaps in the not-too-distant future robots will handle that burdensome task. At least one company is already planning on it.
Kobi, a 3-in-1 autonomous robot, was unveiled in October by The Kobi Company, a startup based in New York City. The product is being described as the world's first multi-functional robot for yard work in all seasons, as it's capable of mowing the lawn and vacuuming leaves, in addition to clearing snow.
Kobi comes with a companion app, which allows the user to drive the device around their yard or driveway as well as instruct it where to blow snow. It navigates on its own thanks to built-in GPS and a variety of sensors. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and mobile data connectivity allow Kobi to monitor the weather forecast so it knows when it will snow.
Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Steven Waelbers told AccuWeather the user is always in control of the device, meaning they can have it set to follow the snow automatically or the person handling Kobi can just turn it on when it's snowing.
Waelbers said Kobi's efficiency is increased because it clears snow in small layers, rather than waiting for it to accumulate.
"While it is still snowing, we go back and forth over the driveway and we remove small bits of snow at a time," Waelbers said.
Waelbers, along with co-founder and CEO Andrew Ewen, pointed out several key reasons why they decided it was time to construct a snow-removing robot.
Shoveling snow has been linked to health risks such as heart attacks and people have suffered injuries to their limbs as the result of snow blowers. Furthermore, yard work can be time-consuming. Having a robot around can allow for more free time for people to enjoy other pursuits.
"We wanna change the way people think about cleaning their snow and mowing their lawn," Ewen said. "We're moving in an age where robotics can do a lot of those tasks intelligently."
For those interested in obtaining a Kobi, the product is still in the testing phase, but it will be available for purchase in time for the 2017-2018 winter season for a price of $3,999.
Kobi is the latest technological advance that aims to reduce time spent on arduous yard work. In recent years, there has been a proliferation in Uber-like snow removal services where residents can simply request a driver with a snowplow through an app. Within a designate timeframe, a plow operator will then arrive at a person's home.
While Kobi is the first autonomous robotic device geared towards snow removal that will eventually hit the market, people have experimented with the idea elsewhere.
This coming January, the seventh annual Institute of Navigation Autonomous Snowplow Competition (ION ASC) will take place in St. Paul, Minnesota, with teams coming from across the U.S. and Canada to compete. The event's website states that the competition's main purpose is to design, build and operate a fully autonomous snowplow to remove snow from a designated path.
"Automated machines for snow removal will have huge benefits for people," said Michael Ward, co-founder of Stray Robotics, a robotics fabrication shop in Minneapolis. "A homeowner could employ this system and never have to go out and shovel again. Their driveway would always be clear in the mornings on their way to work and would still be clear when they get home."
Before these robotic devices become widespread, there are hinderances to identify. These include children or pets running in front of the machine or cars parking in a new area. These distractions can provide a test for developers and the computer system on a machine that was running through its task. That's why at this year's competition, Ward said they will make the entrants navigate their robots around moving obstacles.
Still, Ward said there is an untapped market, and if the Kobi is priced right and proven safe, similar products could become commonplace.
"I think the Kobi would be a tremendous help for homeowners," said Ward, a ION ASC committee member. "I really like how it has attachments for the various tasks that it can perform instead of having to buy a Kobi for each season. They've really put some thought into their product and I believe it'll jump-start a sort of yard work revolution."
Ewen said he has talked to interested consumers at trade shows who were anticipating a product like Kobi and some commercial snow removal services have already inquired. However, he did add that others will need more time to get on the bandwagon.
"There is an aspect of consumers now that are realizing that robotics... well it's starting to play a very important part in their lives," Ewen said. "More and more people are accepting of it."