An iconic cartoon from the 1960s features George Jetson living a futuristic life with his wife Jane, children Judy and Elroy, and their loveable dog Astro. The family’s day is filled with automation, from the cleaning robot, Rosie, to their Dial-a-Meal food creator. While many gadgets highlighted in the show never came to pass (no anti-gravity belts yet), the show’s vision of an automated future was nevertheless eerily accurate. Today, there are robots that scrub floors, wash windows, and clean ducts; other robots move supplies from one floor to another. And now, automation has moved outdoors, with self-driving lawnmowers expanding into the world of commercial landscape maintenance.
From Handheld Cutters to Gas-Powered Mowers
Robotic lawnmowers are the culmination of an evolutionary process that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Up until then, grass on properties, whether business or residential, was kept in check by handheld scythes—the cutting tool that’s typically associated with the Grim Reaper. Back then, cutting grass was slow, arduous work.
But sometime in the early 1800s, a young engineer in England named Edwin Beard Budding had a bright idea. He was visiting a cloth mill when he noticed a machine that was used to trim irregular fabric, and had an idea: What if the same cutting technology used to cut fabric could be used to cut grass? Budding got to work, and a few years later, in 1830, he took out a patent on the world’s first lawnmower. The hand-pushed contraption was a hit, and before long was being used to cut the lawns of sports fields and properties with extensive gardens.
Since then, mowing technology has come a long way, but just like Beard’s original invention, the majority of today’s mowers still require someone to drive or push them. But not for long.
Robotics Enter the Picture
The first robotic mower made its appearance the same year that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. In 1969, Spencer L. Bellinger, another intrepid engineer, created the first retail robotic lawnmower. Dubbed the MowBot, it operated through a signal wire that set the boundaries for operation. According to a New York Times article from that era, “. . . the mower [is] entirely safe and so quiet that it can be operated at night.” At the time, however, the MowBot was seen more as a whimsical gadget than a practical piece of landscaping equipment.
That started to change in the 1990s, when more advanced robotic lawnmowers made their debut. In 1995, Husqvarna developed a modern-style, solar-powered version of the self-driving machine. It featured several improvements over its predecessors, including enhanced programmability, smartphone control, and autonomous obstacle avoidance. This time, robotic lawnmowers were taken seriously, leading to further technology advancements. By 2005, robotic lawn mowers represented the second largest category of domestic robots.
Mower technology continues to develop at a fast pace, as more companies enter the market. According to the IBIS World Landscaping Service Industry Report, the landscape service industry is a $129 billion enterprise. Not surprisingly, many companies want to tap into this lucrative market, and they’re doing it with robotic mowers that offer a host of benefits for commercial landscape maintenance.
Addressing Labor Shortages in Commercial Landscape Maintenance
Approximately half of a company’s landscaping budget is spent on labor—assuming the company can find that labor. According to the 2021 Green Industry Benchmark Report, attracting and retaining employees is still the landscaping industry’s biggest problem, with 70% of landscapers reporting difficulties in finding employees. While a self-driving mower still requires some minimal human interface, it’s estimated that in many instances it can reduce labor costs by 90%.
The National Association of Workforce Boards—an organization that connects workforce professionals with Washington, D.C. policymakers—welcomes these advances. “We are embracing technology more than ever, with no fear of worker displacement. Autonomous mowers keep the turf maintained, freeing up workers to focus on more skilled tasks, such as pruning and plant diagnostics,” the association says on its website.
And saving on wages isn’t the only cost benefit of self-driving mowers. Scythe Robotics, which manufactures autonomous lawnmowers, claims the typical landscaper needs to replace a gas-powered mower every three to four years. Although self-driving mowers can be expensive up front, most are electric and so are more economical in the long run, due to longevity and reduced maintenance (no spark plugs, gas, or oil required). Scythe even offers a pay-per-acre model to its customers.
Other companies, like Graze Inc., function on a hardware/software model. The purchaser makes an initial investment in equipment, and then makes a monthly service payment for the software to keep the mower up to date and functioning. Graze claims an investment in one of their machines will increase a landscaping company’s profit margins by fivefold. Another seller of these autonomous machines, Turflynx, claims that switching from traditional to self-driving mowers reduces energy consumption by 80% and maintenance expenses by 40%.
The Eco-Friendly Solution for Commercial Landscape Maintenance
Electric self-driving mowers also have benefits for our planet. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landscaping equipment engines produce up to five percent of our national air pollution. In fact, the California Air Resources Board reports that operating a commercial gas lawnmower for one hour emits as much pollution as driving a passenger car for about 300 miles. Statistics like this are motivating more companies to adopt electric self-driving mowers.
In general, companies today are searching for more sustainable approaches to facilities maintenance. Many have already turned to eco-friendly solutions for cleaning, so eco-friendly landscape maintenance is a logical next step. Fortunately, these businesses now have more practical choices in electric equipment, as battery technology has drastically improved over the past several years.
The Future of Commercial Landscape Maintenance
Adding convenience, cost savings, and other benefits to a company’s landscape maintenance routine doesn’t require sacrificing a beautiful exterior. While some businesses may be hesitant to use new technology such as autonomous mowers, others are embracing it.
In April 2022, the City of Glendale kicked off a pilot program with Graze, in which park staff will test and provide input on Graze’s automated electric mowing equipment. Glendale mayor Paula Devine promoted the partnership, saying, “Well, this is certainly an exciting day for the City of Glendale as we are the first—the very first—to partner with Graze.”
How quickly companies adopt self-driving mowers for their commercial landscaping and maintenance remains to be seen. But as autonomous mowers and battery-powered equipment roll out over the next decade, many expect that the majority of companies will start to embrace this cutting-edge technology. The benefits—lowered costs, increased sustainability—are just too significant to ignore.