June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

The perpetual-motion machine may be a pipe dream. Cold fusion may be a bust. Yet one of mankind’s most-cherished fantasies seems about to be realized: A lawn mower that requires no one to push it or aim it.

“The ultimate machine,” enthuses Keith Doty, 55, inventor of the Lawn Nibbler, a totally automatic robot mower. “You buy it, set it up, ignore it, and it takes care of your lawn forever. It works by itself.”

Actually, the prototype Nibbler, which runs on a battery, follows the dictates of microchips and infrared sensors and is guided by a buried cable running around the perimeter of the lawn. A year away from being marketed, it should eventually retail for about $600. It is capable, says Doty, who recently resigned as director of the Machine Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Florida, of avoiding obstacles and memorizing the most efficient way to mow a given patch of grass. The inspiration for the device: Doty’s childhood memories of life on his family’s Oklahoma farm. “I drove a tractor and drove a combine—endless hours of boring, tiring, mechanical work,” he says. “I used to dream of machines that would do it.”

Doty, who received considerable help from University of Florida colleagues A. Antonio Arroyo and Scott Jantz, has set up his own company to market his brainchild. Lawn-care giants Toro and Black & Decker have expressed interest. “I’m hoping to get rich with it,” admits Doty, who foresees robot vacuum cleaners and tractors in the near future. “Why? So I can play with more robots.”

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