The Robotic Breakthrough We’ve Been Waiting For


Karel Čapek is the Czech writer that gave us robots. Well, not robots as we now think of them, but as he imagined them. He also gave us the word robot. In his 1920 science fiction play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti. Čapek described his “roboti” as humans manufactured in factories from synthetic organic matter. The play, premiering in January 1921, was an instant success. By 1923 his play had been translated into 30 languages, including English, of course.

While the functioning flesh-and-blood androids envisioned by Čapek remain in the realm of science fiction (thankfully), robots play an increasingly larger role in our society — most visibly in the mining and military where they’re used to perform dangerous tasks, and in manufacturing fabrication and assembly lines where they’re replacing humans in performing dull, repetitive tasks.

To date however, even though the landscape/snow management industry has embraced mechanization (think compact and mini compact equipment, ride-on spreaders and sprayers, etc.), robotics has yet to barely impact the industry’s reliance on labor tasked with delivering fatiguing services.

That’s changing, says Terry Olkin, CEO of Land Hand Robotics, Longmont, Colorado. He and his partner CTO Mike Ott are bringing the industry’s first snow management robot to market. They displayed a prototype of their SnowBot Pro at this past October’s GIE+EXPO and are readying commercial units for the 2018-2019 snow season.

Briefly, the SnowBot Pro is a commercial, self-driving, 4-wheel unit that clears snow from walkways with a 4-foot-wide, hydraulically operated rotating brush. The robot is powered by a 28-horsepower gasoline engine and can be transported on any trailer typically used to carry a zero-turn mower.

Olkin says SnowBot Pro reduces the number of hand shovelers or snow blower operators needed by up to 80 percent. Optional deicer attachments are available for the rear of the unit. The attachments can put down either solids or liquids during or after a snow event.

In the off-season, a grounds or landscape worker walks all the paths requiring snow removal with a Path Collection Tool to capture GPS location data. The captured path (sidewalk) description data is uploaded to the cloud-based Robot Operations Center (ROC) where it is transformed into a program. The path program in the ROC can then be activated via mobile device and snow removal initiated by merely pressing the “Start” button on the ROC app. It can be monitored in real time from the ROC web dashboard or the mobile app.

Olkin claims the robotic snow-clearing unit can clear snow (positioning the spinning boom in whichever direction the operator desires) “to centimeter accuracy” and essentially edge-to-edge.

Sensors on the robot detect any unexpected obstacles in its path, pausing until a person has passed or stopping and alerting the ROC to await instructions for continuing. The unit also captures location and weather data, and cameras record the work it does.

“The cameras onboard the robot take before-and-after images and time stamps them with the GPS for documentation,” says Olkin. “If the contractor has to prove they did the work and when they did it, they now have iron-clad proof that it happened, including when and where it happened.”

Olkin says that he and Mike Ott formed Left Hand Robotics (named after a region where they live near Denver), in 2016 and had several units in the field for testing this past snow season. Select contractors and municipalities are continuing to operate and test their robotic units in real-world situations this season.

Olin, an MIT graduate in Computer Science and Engineering, has more than 30 years experience spanning software engineering, building companies and conceiving new products. Prior to Left Hand Robotics, Ott, the mechanical engineering guy, consulted large and small clients in the implementation of technology solutions as the owner of BlackOtt Consulting, a management consulting company that provided program management services for several multi-million dollar system implementations. Olin and Ott got involved in robotics through their involvement with high school robotics programs (Olkin’s eldest son is now studying robotics at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh).

Why has robotics been slow to come to the landscape/snow management industry? Several reasons, says Olkin, one of the biggest being cost. That’s rapidly changing.

“The components you need to build a robot are now getting affordable. Robots are basically composed of computing power, some type of processing unit and then a number of sensors so they can sense the world around them and react to it,” says Olkin. “Of course there are manipulators, arms or whatever they may be that are actually doing the work.”

He adds, “As components get cheaper and faster, we’re going to see more and more machines on work sites doing things that people either can’t or don’t want to do because they’re dangerous or uncomfortable.”

Left Hand Robotics will be exhibiting at the 2018 SIMA Show in Cleveland, Ohio, and is taking reservations for SnowBot Pros for the 2018-2019 snow season.