5 things to know about robotic mowing

April 8, 2021 -  By
Person setting boundary on robotic mower (Photo: Greenzie)

Inside the lines An operator using a mower equipped with Greenzie’s autopilot technology can create an outer boundary, and the mower will take it from there. (Photo: Greenzie)

It’s no secret the labor market is tough for landscape companies. While it may be easy for one company to increase hourly wages to keep and attract good workers, other companies are looking to the future to see if technology can help crews run more efficiently and ease labor woes.

Matthew Gramer, president of NatureWorks in Walpole, Mass.; Walt Rose, manager of professional direct sales for Husqvarna; Joe Langton, president of the Langton Group in Woodstock, Ill.; Charles Brian Quinn, co-founder and CEO of Greenzie; and Ben Collinsworth, general manager of Yellowstone Landscape in Austin, Texas, share their top five tips to help you start on the path to robotics.

1. Start small

Gramer, who is also a Husqvarna Automower dealer, says a lot of companies contact him to ask how to introduce autonomous mowing to their landscape company, as he did for his business. NatureWorks offers maintenance, irrigation, lawn care, seasonal decor and snow and ice removal and caters to a high-end residential clientele.

His advice? “Go buy one and put it at your house, put it in your office, put it somewhere,” he says. “You have to just learn all the nooks and crannies about it.”

Rose says before starting, landscapers should take a good long look at their business model and see if robotics fits in currently with their future goals.

“The landscape companies that are very progressive, that want to set themselves apart in the market, this is for them,” he says. “The company doing a large number of residential and commercial properties fits this best.”

2. Scale responsibly

After getting their feet wet with robotic mowing, landscape pros should approach adding robotics just like they did as they were starting your business, Langton advises. Langton also sells robotic mowers through another business, Automated Outdoor, and hosts a podcast about robotic mowing called “Automating Success.”

“Take a comfortable, scaled approach to getting into robots,” he says. Langton first trialed robotic mowers at his home, the Langton Group’s office and the homes of key employees and his brother — a partner in the business. He then took an extra step by seeking out clients who had parted ways with his company to try his robotic mowing service.

Robotic mowers and NatureWorks van (Photo: NatureWorks)

Low risk For clients who are a good fit for its autonomous mowing service, NatureWorks has them commit to a trial for a few months. (Photo: NatureWorks)

“I figured if I could get a customer that let us go for one reason or another to believe in us again — with robotics — that would be the biggest proving test,” he says.

As you’re growing your robotic mowing business, Rose says to keep in mind that not every property is a fit. Husqvarna’s Automower runs on a guide wire boundary system, which Rose says helps the mower navigate complex layouts of yards and properties.

“The Automower sits on that property, and it’s always cutting,” he says of the service. “Then, you have one person does what little bit of blowing, edging and a little bit of hedging that’s needed.”

While current robotic mowers are good fits on smaller residential properties, Greenzie’s aftermarket autopilot technology is at the other side of the spectrum for commercial landscapers says Quinn. With Greenzie’s technology, operators with a standard ride-on mower outfitted with Greenzie’s technology make a boundary path and then push a button that allows the mower to operate autonomously while the operator is on-site performing other cleanup services like edging, weeding and blowing.

“This technology is not ready for postage-size residential, right now,” Quinn says of Greenzie’s aftermarket autopilot technology. “We’re only automating 61- and 72-inch mowers.”

Langton says tough properties are also an opportunity to automate and see if the equipment is a fit with the operation.

“Pick the hard yards that they just don’t want to mow anymore, that they know they’re losing money and that they know people are complaining about,” he says.

3. Involve your team in rollout

While it’s easy as a business owner to see the potential labor savings of a robotic mowing fleet, it’s important to understand that your employees may not see those robots as assistance but competition, Collinsworth acknowledges.

He says that while Yellowstone Landscaping, which focuses primarily on commercial maintenance, is demoing different autonomous mowers, having his crew members be a part of the education and deployment has made a big difference.

He says he’ll tell crew members, “I need an extra hundred people to go and handle all this growth, and I can’t find them. These robots help us answer that question. They don’t replace your work. They help to do the work that we can most easily replace. Then, you can concentrate on things that are important to our clients but that take a human eye. They’ll have to see a robot on a crew and see that nobody got fired.”

4. Educate potential clients

It’s important to help your clients understand what the robotic mowing service does and doesn’t do.

“We do have to work to educate them a little bit because robotic mowing is still quite foreign,” Gramer says. “People just think it’s sci-fi, like it doesn’t exist.”

Gramer says this is where he shares his experience trialing his company’s first robotic mower. He talks about how his yard transformed into a dense carpetlike turf where it outcompetes crabgrass and has fewer fungal issues.

Account managers often broach the subject when a client asks for an additional day of traditional mowing, complains about the noise or wants crews to visit only at certain times. NatureWorks asks clients to commit to a robotic mowing trial for a few months to see if it is a good fit.

“We definitely take the risk out of it for them,” he says. “And, if they don’t like it, we’ll just remove it and go back to the old way. Fortunately, that just doesn’t happen.”

NatureWorks recently surveyed its robotic mowing clients, and 77 percent of the respondents said they would not want to return to traditional mowing.

Langton sells four-year service contracts. When the robotic mower has an alert come up about something blocking its path, technicians will notify clients and ask if they would like to remove the downed limb or send a crew.

“Nine times out of 10 they’re like, ‘Send one of your people and bill me,’” he says. “Instead of picking up those branches for free for customers on our weekly service call, I’m actually billing them, and the customers are happy to pay the bills because they don’t have to look at the branch in their yard for a week.”

5. Expect a learning curve

Gramer says that while yes, there are opportunities with robotic mowing, his team is still learning the ups and downs of operating a robotic mowing service.

“We’ve invested at least a couple hundred thousand dollars into it,” he says. “One of our core values here is to find a better way. So, it’s very much in our DNA to challenge the status quo, and we hold onto that conviction that there has to be a better way to mow lawns than the current way. We think this is moving us in that direction, but it’s not an easy road.”

Collinsworth says it’s critical to set expectations lower so that you and your employees don’t overpromise and underdeliver.

“This is something that’s going to take a while to get right,” he says. “When we do get it right, it’ll be great for everybody’s interest. You’ve got to slow your expectations of rolling it out to a lot of people or places and making promises to clients that you can’t deliver on.”

He says, overall, it’s exciting to be part of something that is a major technological advancement for the industry. “Everybody should be championing this effort as we go forward,” he says.

Christina Herrick

About the Author:

Christina Herrick is the editor of Landscape Management magazine. Known for her immersive approach to travel from coast to coast in her previous stint as senior editor of American Fruit Grower Magazine, she uses social media (Twitter/Instagram @EditorHerrick) to share her experiences on the road with her audience. Herrick has a degree in journalism from Ohio Northern University. She can be reached at cherrick@northcoastmedia.net.

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