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MIT engineer built a semiautonomous snowblower so he never has to shovel again

MIT’s Dane Kouttron has built Chomper, a semiautonomous snowblower.Dane Kouttron

When a winter storm hits the state, you won’t find Dane Kouttron bundled up outside, shovel in hand, clearing his driveway of snow.

Instead, he’s typically indoors, wearing pajama pants and a pair of plush elephant slippers, as a robot does the job for him.

Kouttron, a staff research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s nuclear reactor lab, is the owner and creator of a semiautonomous snowblowernamed “Chomper” — that can take on the daunting task of snow removal remotely.

On Thursday, following a minor storm that dumped a few inches of snow on the region, he was outside at Danehy Park in Cambridge, running tests on the machine, when it caught the attention of Aleszu Bajak as he was passing by.

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Impressed, Bajak, who teaches at Northeastern University, took a video of the snowblower chomping through the snow and posted it to Twitter.

“Just a semi-autonomous snowblower in Cambridge, that’s all,” Bajak wrote.

As of the Friday, the short clip had been viewed thousands of times, unexpectedly launching Kouttron’s robot to stardom as it circulated on news stations across the country.

“I was actually just testing out different things and working on a few software bugs,” Kouttron said. “I hadn’t anticipated any of the wild responses that resulted from it.”

The Ashland resident, who typically uses the snowblower to clear his two-car driveway, said he was excited to get outdoors this week to use the machine.

Because it’s been a relatively light season in terms of snow, he hasn’t had many opportunities to test the tweaks he’s made to the device.

“I might be the one person who is looking forward to the next storm,” Kouttron said in a telephone interview.

Kouttron, who was once on the robot-fighting television series “BattleBots,” said the machine was first built last year, after MIT canceled school in advance of an impending winter storm.

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He said he had robot-combat parts and a semifunctional electric snowblower sitting in his basement, gathering dust, and the “two of them definitely wanted to become one.”

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to not have to go outside in this blizzard to shovel a driveway?’ ” he said.

And so, Chomper was born.

“Thank God for snow days,” he told the Globe.

The first iteration of his “great snow creature” was operated via a remote control. The latest version, however, can also be programmed to remove snow autonomously by plugging in GPS coordinates or establishing a geo-fence, so it auto-generates routes to take. The machine also has an onboard camera system that helps it avoid obstacles in its path and allows him to watch what’s happening on a hand-held screen. (Think of it as a snowblower’s-eye-view of the action).

The 29-year-old described Chomper as a “slightly more dangerous” Roomba, the robotic vacuum popular in many homes.

Kouttron added a bit of a comical twist to the snowblower recently: a set of bright lights that he transformed into googly eyes, giving it a cartoonish look.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “A lot of people are less concerned about a giant monster robot after it has googly eyes.”

While building Chomper started as a curiosity born from a bit of boredom, people’s reactions to seeing the snowblower in action has left Kouttron wondering whether maybe there’s a market for his creation.

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“I’m going to evaluate if there’s a desire to have this contraption out there in the wild,” he said. “The more robots, the better.”

In the meantime, he plans to keep working on the one he has at home.

“I’ll be continuing software updates,” he said, “and looking forward to the next blizzard.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.