Should robots do your mowing?

Features - Robomowing

Automated mowing may be the next big thing.

October 10, 2017

© Lya_Cattel | iStockphoto

Love it or hate it, lawn maintenance is a significant segment of the market. But it’s never easy money: Margins are tight, competition is stiff and employees are hard to keep. “When I owned a sod installation company, I never wanted to do maintenance,” says Nick Sagnella, co-founder of HomeVP in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s typically resource-intensive, and you don’t make money unless you’re operating on a large scale.”

After Sagnella sold his company, he and a business partner began to look at other service industry options. “We wanted to harness technology to service homeowners better,” Sagnella says. “We narrowed it to the landscaping sector, and automated mowing seemed to be ripe.” Their company began installing robotic mowers for residential properties in the Charlotte area in June 2017 with several dozen in service to date.

With just a handful of robotic mowing companies currently in operation across the country, the industry is poised for growth. Interestingly, these mowers have been popular in Europe for decades. But growing interest in the environment, and the techno-geeky coolness factor of a little robot driving across the lawn are spurring interest in the U.S. now, says Sagnella.

Reason for robotics.

Robotic mowers can perform when humans can’t. “Many of our customers were not happy with their current providers,” Sagnella says. “It doesn’t matter how great your operation is. You can’t put a 1,300-pound mower on the grass in the rain.” Robotics can mow multiple times a week even when the weather isn’t cooperating.

Justin Crandall and his business partner ran a Dallas lawn maintenance company. “We had 5,000 customers and did maintenance only,” Crandall says. “We were 100 percent residential and went after the part of the market no other landscaper likes.” But with the volume and the rainiest two summers on record after a 10-year drought in Texas, they soon became disillusioned. “Reliability, costs and weather became big issues,” he says.

They researched Europe’s robotics market and launched Robin, their robotic mowing program, in May 2017, selling off their traditional lawn business. Less than 10 percent of their customers opted to transition with the company. “We decided to find a new customer base, which has turned out to be primarily the tech-savvy and environmental people,” Crandall says.

Andrew Walsh, owner of the design/build firm Terra Dura Landscapes in Austin, Texas, jumped into the market because he was listening to an interview that got him thinking about job loss due to automation.

“To me, it makes sense to automate anywhere there’s a simple task,” Walsh says. In late spring 2017, he opened a sister company, Blackland Supply Company, to become a robotic mower dealer.

How robotics work.

Robotic mowers are slightly smaller than traditional push mowers. They weigh between 20 to 50 pounds and run using a low-voltage wire, laid out along the perimeter of the lawn, similar to what’s installed for electronic dog fencing. The charging station is placed within 50 feet of an outdoor electrical outlet.

Wires can be run through expansion joints of concrete drives or walkways. Asphalt may require using an angle grinder to cut a channel, then caulking over the wire. If there’s a fence, two robots may be required. The robots are scheduled to run depending on the customer’s grass type and preference. The machine returns to the charging station when power is low. They are also quiet so they can run at night without disturbing clients, Walsh says.

Robotic mowers may be a better solution to mowing in wet conditions.
Photo by Kate Spirgen

Units also are scheduled around irrigation times because there’s a risk they’d bump into operating sprinkler heads and damage them. Mowers can run in rain, but it’s not ideal in certain types of soil. Some have rain sensors so they’ll head back to their charging station if it’s too wet.

Robotic road bumps.

Although there’s obviously a nifty-gee-whiz factor to robotic mowing, it’s not without challenges. “There’s a lot more involved than meets the eye,” Sagnella says. One of the issues is cut wires. “We didn’t anticipate the number that get damaged during edging, trimming or aeration,” Crandall says. And although every major manufacturer assured him it wasn’t going to be a problem, Crandall says theft is a concern. “In the early days, we had three units stolen,” he says. “Now we custom install GPS trackers.”

Awareness about robotic mowers is another issue, as it only appeals to a small share of the market. The companies say leads have come from social media, Google ads or local news coverage.

So, is this new world worth exploring? In the big picture, time will tell how quick Americans are to embrace the technology. But it could be good for everyone.

“Hopefully, one of the effects is that it’s going to save time and money so we can offer better employment,” Walsh says. “I think it’s going to be a solution to the constant labor problems.

My crews joke about it, but they know I’m trying to save their jobs. I want to offer real employment with room to grow.”

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.