Implementing Autonomy into Your Landscaping Business

Autonomy is gaining ground in several aspects of the landscaping world. Here is how landscape businesses can leverage that technology.

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This is a familiar scenario: A commercial turf operation identifies autonomous mowers as valuable to their operation, and they ask this question: “How do we get started integrating autonomous mowing into our business?”

Typically, interest in autonomous or driverless mowing is inspired by a profound and ongoing labor shortage. There’s a lack of workers to complete the existing workload, and there are difficulties with current staff members who are unreliable and less motivated. In addition, the lingering uncertainty of securing workers through the U.S. Department of Labor's H-2B visa program and the annoyance of constant labor turnover are realities in this industry.

Landscaping operations managers have had a glimpse of the future: They want to be industry leaders in this technology and stand out as an early adopter. They also hope to get ahead of the competition that may or may not be evaluating autonomous mowers.

This means that landscape companies are considering autonomy to grow revenue beyond their current capacity, break the revenue plateau and be able to take on more work with fewer people. The goal is not to replace people, but to augment the strong workforce they have with technology that benefits both individual workers and the entire business.

Understanding autonomous mowers

Currently, there are two types of autonomous mowers on the commercial market: installed and integrated.

Installed autonomous mowers are put in place, and that’s where they live, mowing the same ground over and over. Older installs are contained and controlled via ground wires and are equivalent to a grass-cutting robotic vacuum. Newer versions are controlled by GPS or RTK, mowing in a stripe pattern. An installed mower is often scheduled to mow every day or every other day, and it returns to its charging station when complete.

Integrated autonomous mowers are assimilated into a commercial landscape mowing operation alongside other gas and electric mowers. In this system, a trained and dedicated operator mows the defined boundaries in nearly any configuration that allows 10- to 15-foot safety zones around obstacles. In general, these autonomous mowers can knock out one to three acres an hour, depending on conditions. 

It's also important to understand the current state of commercial autonomous mowing. Generally, the products on the market today are capable of striped, unobstructed, open-area mowing. Most autonomous products have the ability to navigate in and around obstructions, leaving a safety buffer around these obstacles which is then mowed manually (either before, during or after autonomy).

Integrated autonomous mowers require a plan to be recorded just once, and then the plan is set—the next time an operator arrives at that location, they simply push a button to mow without having to record a new plan. The operator completes detailed handwork while monitoring the autonomous mowers, and, in case of emergency, the operator carries a device that can immediately stop all the mowers.

Evaluating autonomous mowers to fit your needs 

After learning about today’s market, your team should take time to evaluate current supplier offerings. Instead of focusing on the product itself, consider first evaluating the systems, or support mechanisms, provided by autonomous mowing suppliers. Real and responsive support is critical with emerging technology.

Then consider a demonstration to evaluate the autonomous mowers’ safety, ease-of-use, reliability and productivity. By first focusing on the autonomous infrastructure around the product, you are setting your operation up for success.

As you zero in on certain suppliers, make sure that there’s a strong case for their product as it pertains specifically to your portfolio of work and projected work. A confident, full-support partner will team with you to make that determination. Look for services, materials and one-on-one support that truly helps you successfully integrate autonomous mowers into your operation.

Having an original equipment manufacturing (OEM) partner that is just as invested in the success of your autonomous operation as you are is your competitive advantage. As with all emerging technology, early adopters should expect hiccups and bumps along the way, but this makes a strong manufacturer partnership even more critical and valuable.

Committing to an autonomous vision

While leaders in an organization must be committed to the vision of autonomy, most critical are the middle managers and operators that will own the autonomous mowing operation.

The middle manager that oversees the operation may not be out in the field with the machines daily, but this person should have familiarity with the autonomous mowers, the route, the operators, the properties, and the customers.

Operator selection is equally crucial. The best operators share the following traits: They are trustworthy, willing to be flexible and adapt new workflows, open to new tech and want the autonomous mowers to succeed. Resistance to change at the operator level will almost certainly ensure operation failure.

You and your critical managers should understand that all autonomous mowing operations are different and dependent upon the type of properties your team manages. Schools, athletic fields, parks, military bases and large commercial or industrial sites are the general benchmarks in most commercial landscaping portfolios.

At the current stage of autonomous technology, large commercial mowers are most efficient on large and open work sites. While they can certainly be applied in more obstructed areas, production expectations decrease as the mowers navigate in and around obstacles.

Generally the best sites allow the operator to place multiple mowers into autonomy while they are doing other work like string-trimming or blowing. In terms of volume, one large autonomous mower should be fully capable of 20 to 30 acres of autonomous mowing per week, generally. The mowers are capable of performing far beyond that, but that is a standard measurement to apply to your autonomous potential. 

Getting specific with specs

Before committing to a particular autonomous mower, you need to get specific about the product and ask the following questions:

  • What is the cost? Are there ongoing costs?
  • What will my ROI be?
  • How will my robots be supported, from a mechanical perspective?
  • Who do I turn to if there is a problem?
  • Is there a separate company for the software than the mower?
  • How long do you expect the autonomous mower to last?
  • What is the warranty? 

Your success not only depends on finding the right mower for your company's needs, it also relies heavily on finding the right partner who will address all your questions and concerns honestly and accurately. A partner with an integrated system built on a customer-first commitment, a proactive mindset and a relentless dedication to your business success is critical to your success in adopting autonomous mowing.