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Graze CEO shares the future of his company’s robotic mowers

April 13, 2022 -  By
Graze CEO John Vlay shows off his company's new line of robotic mowers, which he hopes to release for sale later this year. (LM Staff)

Graze CEO John Vlay shows off his company’s new line of robotic mowers at the 2021 GIE+Expo, which he hopes to release for sale later this year. (Photo: LM staff)

After spending more than three decades in the landscaping business and selling his company to a private equity firm in 2016, John Vlay pondered what to do next.

Eventually Vlay found himself as the CEO of Graze, which partnered with Wavemaker Labs in development of robotic mowing technology.

“When I was put in touch with (Graze) I was told they’re making a robotic mower for the commercial industry,” says Vlay. “We got in touch in 2018 and I told them, based on my experience, what I would do with a robotic mower. (Wavemaker Labs) got in touch with me and said they were much further along with their robots. They said they were starting crowdfunding and they brought me on board as the CEO. I’ve been there three years now and we’ve come a long way.”

Early iterations

Graze unveiled plans for its line of autonomous mowers in fall 2020.

Initial versions of the robotic mowers utilized solar panels, but that method spelled just 10 minutes of run time after eight hours of charging. The design soon shifted to a lithium-ion battery, Vlay says.

“It has 40 kilowatt hours of battery,” he says. “It’s a lithium-ion, the same as a Tesla car. It will run for at least eight hours. It has to run for at least a full (work) day, longer based on windshield time. It can be recharged overnight and utilizes lidar, the little chimney on top that emits light rays. You can tell it to detect obstacles five feet in front and it will detect that, stop the motion of the mower, and stop the blades until the object is out of its path. Then, it will continue mowing.

“If a wind storm knocks down a branch overnight and it’s detected and isn’t moved for several seconds, (the mower) will move around that and send a ping back to the operator saying, ‘At this location I wasn’t able to mow.’ We come and remove the obstacle and it keeps working.”

Updates to prototype

Updated models have also been fitted with tweel airless tires to avoid worries of over-or under-inflation. A 60-inch mow deck is small enough to fit on a commercial landscape trailer but also large enough to mow three acres per hour or a football field in 20 minutes.

A mow deck under the chassis has been moved to the front of the mower to ease the process of changing blades. In addition, that change provided room to equip other attachments such as a reel mower, aerator or spreader. Vlay says other uses will include fertilizing and even retrieving golf balls at driving ranges.

“We wanted to make this as autonomous as possible and reduce the amount of labor,” says Vlay. “The company whose blades we were using … we put on a coating to make it a self-sharpening blade. Rather than having to sharpen the blade every six hours (now) you can change it out every 60 hours. That cuts down on the labor doing the maintenance.”

Vlay encouraged potential robotic mower users to always search for ways to most efficiently use the tech.

“You can go seven miles per hour and the less obstructions you have the more you’re going to be able to mow,” he says. “I’d say that any place that’s currently using a 60-inch mower can use this. Obviously, the bigger the area the more efficient it’s going to be.”

Late 2022 release

GPS integration allows for mapping of a job site’s outer and inner perimeter to determine areas where mowing should be avoided. Users can set the beginning and end point of a mow while also setting parallel lines north, south, east and west or even opting for cross-cutting

Graze raised roughly $14.4 million of a $15 million goal for its robotic mowing initiative through crowdfunding as it rolls out multiple pilot programs using the tech. Plans call to release a finished product late this year.

“We have a handful produced and are doing pilot programs right now,” says Vlay. “We’re currently mowing a golf course in Bakersfield and Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, central California to get a lot of hours under our belt.”

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