Here are my goals for the robot mower over the next few months. I need to plan and execute well so that the mower will be ready to cut grass this spring.
Finish designing the robot mower, including wiring and planned integration of the RTK GPS module. The module should arrive at the end of December. I promise I will post more about the RTK GPS module soon.
Send the robot mower weldments out for quote. I’ll also start sourcing purchased parts for the project. Any design changes based on vendor feedback will be incorporated during January. I’ll also start playing with the RTK GPS module, getting a feel for performance and how to configure the base station.
Select a vendor to build the weldment. Start receiving in purchased parts. Implement the RTK GPS module on the wheel chair robot and take it out for field testing. If the weldments are completed in February, we’ll start assembling the robot mower.
Finish construction of the robot lawn mower. Conduct functional testing. Make any last minute changes to the design based on the testing results. Continue field testing the RTK GPS module on the wheel chair robot.
Integrate the RTK GPS module on the robot mower. Start working on making the mower truly autonomous, with my backyard as the test bed. It’s fully fenced in so it should be a safe area, and the trees and houses nearby provide a fairly challenging GPS environment, perfect for working out the kinks.
The Bottom Line
Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll end up among the stars.
-Some motivational kindergarten classroom poster
I realize this is a very aggressive schedule, but it’s been my experience that if you aim high but miss, you still will still achieve a lot more than you would have if you had set a more “realistic” goal. So we’ll see how far we get over the next few months.
I’m trying really hard not to turn the height adjustment mechanism into a science project. All it needs to do is (1) support the mower deck and (2) allow the height of the deck above the ground to be easily adjusted.
You can find some exciting mechanisms out there to adjust the height of a mower deck. Google Scag Tiger Cat Height Adjustment if you want to see one of the more interesting ones.
A lot of mowers have a mechanism that lets you adjust the mower deck with one single lever. While I like these mechanisms I don’t think they’re necessary for the robot mower. How often do you typically adjust your lawn mower’s height? I do it once a year, if that.
For this project, having to adjust the height in four places versus one is a small price to pay compared to the time it would take to both engineer a mechanism that would work for our robot mower. Not to mention the cost to make it. Springs and linkages get expensive quickly, and the risk it won’t work right goes up fast when you start adding lots of moving parts.
I like simple. I’m not that bright, so I figure if I can envision something working, chances are it will probably work okay in real life. To adjust the height of the deck, pull the quick release pin, rotate the lever to the appropriate height, and put the pin back in. Do that in four places and your done. Simple!
The autonomous lawn mower design is coming along nicely. It turns out that the batteries fit nicely below the robot frame. I only had to raise it by 1.5in to give adequate clearance for the battery terminals. This keeps the center of gravity low, and makes for an all around good looking robot in my opinion.
I have an RTK GPS module arriving in December (more on that later), and I want to get the lawn mower design as mature as I can before I need to start investing my time testing that module with the wheel chair.
My list of open items on the design as of this evening:
Latches for the battery compartments. Maybe I don’t need them, but it would be nice to have some way to hold the doors closed. Maybe just some screws would work.
Control enclosure location. It needs to be far enough away from the deck motors to avoid the flux storm. But mounted in such a way that it doesn’t adversely affect vehicle performance or look goofy.
Deck height adjustment mechanism. The robot needs to have a way to simply and quickly adjust the deck height as you would on a typical lawn mower.
Safety shutoff and control system for deck motors. I think these should be powered by a separate set of relays so they can be independently turned off from the rest of the rover. They will still be wired into the master safety shutoff switch.
RTK GPS antenna mount location. Wherever the control enclosure box gets placed, it will need to have enough real estate on it for the GPS antenna.
General wiring. All the motors, the enclosures, everything. This will take a lot of time but as we saw earlier was very much worth it.
Mower deck discharge chute. The mower needs a plastic chute where the grass clippings discharge. It’ll also need the hardware that attaches it to the deck.
The autonomous lawn mower measures 37.5in long X 36in wide X 17.5in tall currently. Not bad considering our grass cutting width is 35.5in!
The nice thing about CAD software is you can see how different ideas play out before you spend a fortune to discover they don’t work. The past month or so I’ve been drawing up robot mower designs with little luck. The model above is the only one I feel even moderately good about.
Most of the concepts I’ve put together so far feature a sheet metal chassis shaped around my batteries and motors. The upside with these previous designs is that it allows for the smallest vehicle footprint. The downside is that they involve a lot of welding and waterjet parts, and it’s difficult to come up with a simple mechanism to adjust the deck height because the motors mount directly to the chassis.
This new concept has the mower deck hanging beneath the robot frame. Separating the deck from the robot frame allows both to be simplified greatly. To adjust the deck height I plan on putting a few turnbuckles between the robot frame and the mower deck. An added bonus is that I can disassemble it and throw the robot in the trunk of my small Hyundai sedan for field testing.
One potential downside I anticipate with the design above is that it will be top heavy. The four batteries have to sit on top of the robot frame. We can box them in and secure the to the frame, but I’m not sure what the vehicle center of gravity will look. Guess we’ll have to do some more modeling to find out.
The electric mower motor I got off craigslist had a 12in blade on it. That motor was rated for 24V, 4300RPM, 1.3N-m. I suspect it was pretty undersized for doing any real grass cutting, but whoever manufactured it had to size it at least somewhat appropriately.
Our three blade mower design has 12in blades on it. So in theory, any motor larger than the craigslist motor should be sufficient. But because I’m a perfectionist, I don’t want to just barely exceed these parameters. I want to knock them out of the park.
For the same torque values as the craigslist motor, the E30-400 motor will rotate at about 5000RPM, consuming 700W while operating at about 77% efficiency. That translates to a blade tip speed of 15700ft/min, or 80% of the maximum allowable tip speed.
At the same speed as the craigslist motor, the E30-400 outputs about 2.8N-m of torque. That’s more than twice what the craigslist motor is rated for. Not bad.
The best part? Three of these guys only cost $354.41. And that’s after shipping, with insurance. The holy grail indeed.
There are a lot of variables to play with as we design the prototype autonomous mower from scratch:
The deck dimensions and shape are entirely up to us.
We get to choose the number of blades.
The size of the blades.
How the blades are driven: direct drive, through a pulley, chain, or timing belt.
What standard lawn mower components we attempt to use.
This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the main variables I find myself tweaking as I try to optimize the design.
We have a lot of freedom to do whatever we want because we are custom making the mower deck. But this also creates a lot of questions. As we discussed previously, the deck geometry and the number of blades used on the mower lock down several of these variables. So before we go any further, I want to go into detail the advantages and disadvantages of a design with one, two, and three mower blades.
Single Blade Mower Design
The single blade design has one huge advantage: one blade, one motor. The motor can even be coupled straight into the blade if it is sized appropriately. This could minimize cost and complexity in a big way for our design.
Unfortunately, it also creates some disadvantages that aren’t immediately obvious:
A single blade design results in the longest wheelbase, which will adversely affect the agility of the mower.
It also results in the largest mower deck. That means it will be heavy and expensive compared to alternatives.
The largest blade you can get is ~30in. So in addition to the negative performance and cost impact from the points above, you can only achieve a cutting width of ~30in with this design.
And on top of all these issues, you also have to go with a minimum 3kW BLDC motor and controller to get the power you need to rotate the blade. That’ll set you back close to $700 after everything is said and done.
Yikes. Turns out a single blade actually creates more problems than it solves. If our target cutting width was in the neighborhood of 20in, this would be the way to go. But since we’re aiming for closer to ~36in, this design is unacceptable.
Two Blade Mower Design
The two blade design solves a lot of the issues that the single blade design faces. The deck length and resulting wheelbase are considerably smaller, and because there are two blades that need to be driven, two smaller, cheaper motors could be used. Or alternatively, you could use one large motor and have a pulley drive system transmit power to each blade.
The biggest drawback with a two blade design is related to geometry. In the picture above there are two dashed circles showing the path the tip of each blade with follow as it rotates. See how they overlap? If we leave the design as shown in that picture, the blades will crash into each other during operation. If space them apart, the grass between them doesn’t get cut.
There are two possible solutions to this issue:
Use a chain or timing belt to link the two blade spindles together. This will ensure they are synchronized through their rotation paths and won’t crash.
Separate the blades so their paths don’t intersect, but angle the deck. As the mower travels, it won’t leave a small tract of uncut grass.
Using chain isn’t a good option to synchronize the rotation of the two blades in my opinion. The blade drive system needs to be designed for shock loading, and also to minimize vibration for the Pixhawk. Chain doesn’t help any in this realm. It also creates maintenance issues, although those are secondary concerns. I suspect this is why V belt is used on commercial mowers most commonly, not chain.
A timing belt is a better solution, but this forces us to find a way to integrate timing belt sprockets into our design, which will invariably result in some expensive fabricated adapters to link an off the shelf timing belt sprocket to the mower spindle. So it’s a better solution than chain, but has it’s own set of problems. So option 1 is out.
Option 2 is an elegant solution, and you see it on commercial mower decks that feature two blades quite often. However, the tradeoff is that you increase the length of the deck because you are essentially moving one blade further forward than the other. See the picture below to see what I’m getting at.
Dimensionally, option 2 results in the same wheelbase as a single blade design, but with the headache of two motors. It may even be longer than a single blade design, because the swivel caster assembly on the front needs clearance to swivel.
Plus it just looks funky. So a two blade design is out, too.
Three Blade Mower Design
Initially I was hesitant to even consider a three blade design because of the number of parts it will require. Three blades, three spindles, three pulleys, a belt to connect all of the spindles, or three motors to direct drive the blades.
To complicate matters, the smaller the blade length, the faster it needs to rotate to achieve good grass cutting velocity. We previously discovered that a 21in blade requires 3500RPM in order to achieve a blade tip speed of 19000ft/min. For a 12in long blade, that number jumps to more than 6000RPM.
This is a problem because most DC motors don’t operate at those speeds with any significant amount of torque. In fact, most of the motors I’ve seen have no-load speeds listed far below 6000RPM. That’s the bad news with a three blade design.
The good news? Other than these blade drive system constraints, the three blade design is geometrically very efficient. It results in the smallest wheelbase, and because it is triangular in shape, you get bonus clearance for the front casters to swivel. It requires the least amount of material to fabricate. That means cheap and lightweight.
The blades are separated by a small amount but because the center blade is slightly more forward than the outer two, you still get 100% cut coverage, similar to the angled two blade design.
The three blade mower design is by far the most efficient, and I like the way it looks, too. The only hurdle to making it works is finding a motor that won’t break the bank, but still get us close to the 6000RPM requirement for a 12in blade. If we can find a motor that works with this design it will by far be the best one of the three. Does such a motor exist?
The Holy Grail of DC Motors
We had previously considered BLDC motors to give us the power and efficiency we need to spin the cutting blade. But unfortunately that power and efficiency comes at a cost: BLDC motors require a controller to run them.
So even if you find a fairly cheap BLDC motor that meets your needs, tack on 50% of the motor price for the controller. Need three motors? Looks like you need three controllers, too. And the space to mount them somewhere. I’m sure they make combo controllers out there, but I can’t find them.
The other problem with these controllers is that you’re paying for a ton of features you don’t even need. Most are designed for electric scooters. I don’t need the ability to go in reverse, or to vary the speed. I just need a motor to spool up and stay there. With typical BLDC motor controllers, you get a bunch of these features, and boy do you pay for them.
So while BLDC motors fit our application requirements, they are costly. Ideally we’d like to use a simple brushed motor that operates at the speed and torque we need. Turn it on with a $3 relay. Keep it simple.
In my adventures across the interwebs, I had trouble finding anyone who makes a brushed motor that runs close to 6000RPM with significant amounts of torque, that also costs less than $400.
But that was before I found the folks out at AmpFlow. They make a really nice set of brushed, DC motors in the speed and torque range we need. They also appear to be US based, which is a plus. They post torque values in oz-in and dimensions in inches. And they have torque curves for their products. All around, these guys are awesome.
Next time I’ll go over the specifications for the E30-400 DC motor, which I think is perfect for this application.
Picture yourself at your local grocery store. Our grocery store has two kinds of shopping carts: the big one that I grab for loading up 24 packs of Mountain Dew, and the small one I use when the Missus asks me to get a gallon of milk and some cans of soup. The small cart is half the length of the big one.
Which of these two carts is easier to navigate through the store? Or worded more technically, which one has a smaller turning radius? I think you can see where I’m going with this.
All else being equal, a smaller wheel base and foot print is going to be easier to control using our differential drive system. A longer mower is going to swing through a larger radius, and is going to be more difficult to control and position accurately. For a given amount of drive wheel rotation, you will get more angular travel at the front of the mower with a longer wheel base than a smaller one.
It turns out that there are other considerations that impact whether one cutting blade is the best choice for our mower design. A single blade mower allows for the most simple blade drive system. But as you can see from the table above, the single blade design is almost 9in longer than either of the other two designs.
The extra length tradeoff needs to be weighed against the simplicity gained by the cutting blade system. There is also a tradeoff between number of blades and cutting width. By going with a single blade design, you lose at least 5in of cutting width compared to a two or three blade design.
Long story short, of the three designs, the single blade is pretty inefficient by some measures. It is the longest of the three, has the smallest cutting width, and requires the most material to fabricate. If I’m going to be successful with the robot lawn mower build, these are serious considerations that need to be taken into account.