The best backyard tech: Check out robot lawn mowers, weed whackers, smart sprinklers

·8 min read

If my backyard had a cozy bed, no bugs, and a Superdome-style retractable roof for the rare times it rains these days in the San Francisco Bay Area, I would sleep there.

I’ve always loved being outdoors, but it seems like since the pandemic, fresh air has never quite felt so good. And since my current home sits squarely in an urban, industrial, more-cement-than-trees area, I rely on my little slice of outdoor space to keep my spirits up.

Turns out, I’m not alone. A recent survey commissioned by the International Casual Furnishings Association shows 90% of Americans report outdoor living space is more valuable than ever before.

Hot summer tech trend: Outdoor upgrades

“Volumes of scientific research prove the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature,” Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Home Furnishings Alliance and executive director of its outdoor division, said over the phone. “When the COVID-19 pandemic kept the majority of us at home, nearly all Americans with outdoor living space took greater advantage of their decks, porches, and patios, and will continue to upgrade those spaces this summer.”

Are you a novice gardener? Turn your black thumb green by using the PictureThis app to identify plants. Its database offers 98% accuracy.
Are you a novice gardener? Turn your black thumb green by using the PictureThis app to identify plants. Its database offers 98% accuracy.

Many of the upgrades people are making involve some sort of new technology. From a smart grill you can control from your Apple Watch – to a robot weed wacker that runs on sunshine – there’s no shortage of new gadgets to level up your backyard. Here are a few of the standouts:

No green thumb? There’s an app for that

I use the PictureThis (iOS, Android) app on my smartphone to identify plants, set water and fertilizer reminders, and diagnose any issues when my otherwise beautiful buds start to look a little sickly. Open the app, point your smartphone camera at the plant and snap a photo – or upload a picture you’ve already taken – and it takes less than a second or so to come back with an answer. The apps’ website says it identifies more than a million plants with 98% accuracy.

When you tap the little “diagnose” icon, it tells you when your plants have aphids, fungus, or need some specialized care. For an added price, you can also get help from a team of botanists who answer questions and help with specific treatment suggestions for whatever ails your azaleas. There’s a free version, and several tiers of premium features starting around $1.99 a month.

Robot weed whackers

Forward-facing sensors embedded in the Tertill's round dinner-plate-sized body are always on the lookout for a weed.
Forward-facing sensors embedded in the Tertill's round dinner-plate-sized body are always on the lookout for a weed.

The solar-powered Tertill ($349) weed-whacking robot is my new backyard BFF (best friend forever). I’m a little obsessed with it for several reasons, starting with the fact you take it out of the box, set it in the dirt, push one button on top, and it goes to work on your flower beds or veggie garden with no other fuss.

So how does it tell the difference between a weed and a plant? Forward-facing sensors embedded in the round dinner-plate-sized body are always on the lookout for a weed, which it identifies as being “too short to reach Tertill’s edges.” When it “sees” a plant bigger than about two inches high, its spinning string trimmer chops off the top, while its gas-cap-sized tiller wheels dig up the dirt below. It also comes with several wire “guards” that you can put around any low-lying flowers or plants you don’t want it to touch. It runs about 2 hours on a full-sun charge, puts itself to sleep, then powers back up when it’s ready to go on a weed hunt again.

Laborless lawnmowers

Depending on which model you choose, Husqvarna's robot lawn mowers can trim your grass for anywhere from an hour to 4 hours at a clip. And they're so quiet they won't even annoy your neighbors.
Depending on which model you choose, Husqvarna's robot lawn mowers can trim your grass for anywhere from an hour to 4 hours at a clip. And they're so quiet they won't even annoy your neighbors.

For those people lucky enough to have a lush lawn – one that’s not built into the side of a steep slope – autonomous robot mowers are another sweet upgrade. One of the best I’ve tested is Husqvarna’s Automower (prices start at $1,200).

Connect it to an app on your smartphone to set the trimming height, boundary area, and schedule it to do a quick trim every night or two. It’s incredibly quiet, so it won’t wake you or your neighbors, and pro gardeners recommend a “more is better'' approach to lawns because the small clippings robot mowers leave behind are fine enough to decompose and fertilize the soil.

Depending on the model, Husqvarna’s robotic mowers run anywhere from an hour to about 4 hours per charge and drive themselves back to their charging docks to juice up. Also, thanks to a slew of smart sensors, it won't accidentally run over your foot, pet, or even toddler who happens to stumble in its path.

Snappier bug zappers

Skeeter Hawk's line of insect repellents and bug zappers can protect just you or your entire yard
Skeeter Hawk's line of insect repellents and bug zappers can protect just you or your entire yard

The Skeeter Hawk Line of Mosquito Defense gadgets includes everything from chemical-free personal wearables like a velcro wristband and snap-on carabiner, to various shapes and sizes of lantern-like zappers. Each product I’ve tested is both effective – no new mosquito bites while camping near a lake or hanging out in my backyard these past two weeks – and long-lasting.

They’re also – how do I say this nicely? – not an eyesore. The zappers turn a soft, glowing, bluish hue when you plug them in outdoors. Several models have foldaway hooks, extended power cords, built-in lights, and micro-USB charging capabilities, which are nice touches for camping.

They also use LED UV light to attract mosquitoes and other flying insects, then zap them quickly in a 360° electrical grid. The UV light gadgets have a lifespan of 50,000 hours – 5.7 years – versus other zappers that use fluorescent lights with a lifespan of 2,000 hours, or less 3 three months.

Wiser watering

Rachio works with your existing irrigation system to create tailored smart schedules based on the specific needs of your lawn, including plant type, soil type and sun exposure.
Rachio works with your existing irrigation system to create tailored smart schedules based on the specific needs of your lawn, including plant type, soil type and sun exposure.

Smart weather-and-moisture-sensing water systems are another set-it-and-forget-it solution for your backyard. The Rachio 3 ($179 for 8 zones; $230 for 16) has solved all of our water-wisdom issues and ensured we’ve wasted less water, too.

Attach the Rachio sprinkler controller in your garage or shed using the same wires you had with your old sprinkler setup. Download the companion smartphone app, and follow the prompts to customize it all. If you don’t have an existing lawn irrigation system, strong Wi-Fi, or need to install it outdoors, it takes a little extra know-how. The site's FAQs help quite a bit here, but you might need to hire a professional to get everything all set up.

Level up your grill game

Traeger's system makes it easy to learn to smoke and barbecue meat exceptionally well.
Traeger's system makes it easy to learn to smoke and barbecue meat exceptionally well.

I’ve heard people call Traeger grills the Tesla of smokers, and after spending a year with the Ironwood 885 ($1,499) smart wood-pellet grill, I understand what the fuss is all about. It’s a large, barrel-shaped BBQ that lets you smoke, bake, roast, braise, and – of course – grill.

With Traeger's WiFire tools, you don't have to babysit your smoker. You can monitor it via your smartphone or Apple Watch as you go about your day.
With Traeger's WiFire tools, you don't have to babysit your smoker. You can monitor it via your smartphone or Apple Watch as you go about your day.

It’s packed with next-gen features like their “WiFIRE” connection and a built-in pellet sensor that lets you control your cook and monitor your fuel levels, right from an app on your smartphone, Apple Watch, or all kinds of smart home devices. What I like most about it though is how easy it is to use, and how quickly you can learn to smoke and barbecue meat exceptionally well. It really is as easy to use as turning on your oven.

Upgrades for backyard movie nights

Anker's soda-sized RD-D2 projector and a bedsheet can turn your backyard into a movie theater.
Anker's soda-sized RD-D2 projector and a bedsheet can turn your backyard into a movie theater.

The limited-edition R2-D2 Nebula Capsule II by Anker ($700) is a soda-can-sized projector that lasts for four hours on a single charge. It displays images up to 8 feet wide with 720p resolution. While this might be a sticking point for cinephiles, it’s perfect for the casual viewer just looking to wow the neighbors with the cutest projector on the block. The Nebula capsule also features built-in speakers, more than 5,000 supported apps, and Chromecast integration.

For now, I use a white Threshold Performance bedsheet ($29) I picked up at Target as a screen. It has a reflective sheen that works better than an older sheet I was using, and as long as it’s not too windy, it’s a great low-cost alternative to pricier outdoor screens. If I go hands-on with more outdoor screens, which I hope to do soon, I’ll be sure to let you know if I find something better.

CLIQ's bottle-sized portable camping chairs make great spur-of-the-moment seating on the go.
CLIQ's bottle-sized portable camping chairs make great spur-of-the-moment seating on the go.

Just slightly larger than that soda-can-sized projector are the bottle-sized portable CLIQ camping chairs ($100) that make great spur-of-the-moment seating on the go. They weigh just 3.7 pounds, set up in seconds, and can hold 300 pounds of weight each. They sit low to the ground, but they’re really comfortable, especially for watching a movie, taking to the beach, hiking, or anywhere you want a comfy seat in the great outdoors.

And finally, to help keep you cool when you’re working, playing, or just plain relaxing in your newly upgraded backyard, Spice of Life’s bladeless W-Fan ($48) is another summertime staple to know about. You wear it around your neck and can point the small fans toward your neck, chest, or face – wherever and whenever you need a cool breeze. It has five speeds to choose from and can last about 10 hours on gentle speed and 2.5 hours on high before you need to charge it up again.

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Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Backyard technology: Robot lawn mowers, smart sprinklers, Wi-Fi grills

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