Mow Lake Zurich High's baseball field? Robot's got it. And students are studying it.

  • Lake Zurich District 95 Superintendent Kaine Osburn, left, and Mark Kropiwiec of Echo Product Support watch a robotic mower cut the grass at Lake Zurich High School Friday.

      Lake Zurich District 95 Superintendent Kaine Osburn, left, and Mark Kropiwiec of Echo Product Support watch a robotic mower cut the grass at Lake Zurich High School Friday. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted9/23/2018 5:00 AM

At this very moment, a small beige robot outfitted with unseen blades is quietly cutting a path across the practice baseball field behind Lake Zurich High School. Unless it's in center field charging its battery.

The robot, a prototype, is at the center of a new partnership struck over the summer between Echo Inc. and Lake Zurich District 95.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Under the deal, the high school's fields will be the test site for Echo's autonomous mowers. Echo, meanwhile, committed to making $20,000 annual donations to the district's education foundation for school robotics teams.

While entrusting a robot to tidy up isn't new -- robotic vacuums have been around for years and there are some consumer-level robotic lawn mowers on the market today -- commercial mowers designed for bigger jobs, like the one in Lake Zurich, are far rarer.

"As far as we know when we release it in January, it will be the only product of its type in America," said Mark Kropiwiec, service specialist for Echo's Robotics Division, who added that similar devices have been in use in Europe for several years.

The partnership with Lake Zurich-based Echo also provides students with a unique learning opportunity. Throughout the year, Echo engineers will meet with a group of students, show them the robot's data and challenge them to use it to solve problems and answer questions.

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John Keyser, applied technology teacher and the head faculty sponsor for the robotics club, said the students had their first meeting with Echo engineers last week. They got to see basic information, such as the robot's battery level and whether it is mowing or charging, as well as a map that tracks the robot's every move.

The robotic mower tends to the fields at Lake Zurich High School 24 hours a day, stopping every two hours to charge.
  The robotic mower tends to the fields at Lake Zurich High School 24 hours a day, stopping every two hours to charge. - Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

The autonomous mower is confined to the baseball practice field by an underground electric cable. When the robot senses the cable, it stops, spins in a random direction and continues on. It mows for about two hours before its programming tells it to return to a charging station in deep center field. The robot works around the clock, seven days a week, except during baseball practice.

Keyser said the students' first challenge was to calculate how likely the mower is to cut every blade of grass in a given time. He said they have also been asked to test how well the robot's sensors can detect objects as small as 2 inches wide in the grass.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The group should be up to the task. The 15 students selected by the staff to be part of the testing team are all either in the school robotics club or enrolled in classes for engineering, computer sciences or computer programming.

"We identified the kids we thought could provide positive contributions to the group," Keyser said.

At the end of the year, the students will present Echo engineers with all they've learned.

Superintendent Kaine Osburn said the district saw the partnership as a great learning opportunity.

The robotic mower cuts the grass at Lake Zurich High School unless students are practicing on it, and robotics and engineering students also determine if it can detect small objects in the grass.
  The robotic mower cuts the grass at Lake Zurich High School unless students are practicing on it, and robotics and engineering students also determine if it can detect small objects in the grass. - Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

"Anytime we can get our kids real-world experience and do it with a local business that's also a global business, that's great," Osburn said. "That connects learning to work and that's really what we're excited about, and Echo's been great in working with us to make it happen."

The students won't be limited by weather, either. When winter comes, Kropiwiec said Echo engineers will invite the students to an indoor testing facility at their headquarters, which is just a short walk from the high school.

"They are some really bright kids. It's phenomenal; it blows me away," Kropiwiec said. "I cannot believe how far school has come since I was in school."

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