The Robots Are Here!

Source: www.TurfMagazine.com

But who’s using them and how?

If you’re like a lot of lawn and landscape businesses right now, you might be standing on the other side of robotics and wondering if there’s any scenario in which they make sense for you. In the past, it may have been easy to dismiss these zippy autonomous mowers as a novel curiosity or passing trend. But as the labor shortage intensifies, robotic mowers continue to improve, new mandates demand battery-powered equipment, and clients look for cutting-edge, greener practices, you may now be second-guessing that stance.

Joe Langton, CEO of Langton Group, a landscaping business in Woodstock, IL, first saw a robotic mower at a trade show. He says he realized its relevance boiled down to a simple equation: The mower cost and the cost-per-acre compared to his current labor rate and cost-per-acre. “I realized I could be more affordable with robotics,” Langton says.

At the time, he found support for robotic mowers from local dealers was minimal to null. So Langton founded Automated Outdoor Solutions (AOS), a company for landscape professionals who want to incorporate autonomous mowers into their businesses. Now, he creates content on a You-Tube channel, Automating Success, in which he shares his expertise in getting started. Currently, Langton Group is 20% robotic, but Langton’s goal is to be 80% in the next five years. He says that robotics makes sense for most landscapers, particularly if they’re currently seeing any profit loss in mowing services.

Robotic Mowers

A robotic mower at work for Four Seasons Lawn Service & Landscaping in Illinois.

Getting Started

Getting started in robotics should begin with a closer look at your accounts. Langton says a large number of landscapers are willing to lose profitability in mowing on certain accounts in order to be highly profitable in other services, like mulching or snow removal. But he says this approach is still detrimental to the bottom line—and these accounts should be the first ones to be automated. “Most landscapers just accept the fact they’ll lose money cutting grass,” Langton says. “But mowing is often a third to a half of most landscapers’ service work. Are you willing to let that be a loss?”

Ave Marie DeSimone, owner of Four Seasons Lawn Service & Landscaping, Inc. in Oakbrook Terrace, IL, says that like so many other landscapers, they were reluctant about robotics. But after talking to Langton, they started out by testing an automated mower on one of their larger commercial properties. The results were undeniably favorable from a financial standpoint as well as overall client satisfaction. “Robots work 24 hours a day and also in the rain,” she continues. “When we tested this, we put it on a large commercial site and were able to free up the labor we would have used for mowing that three-acre site.”

Workers on that site could instead focus on coming out once a week for some manicuring and edging work. It’s allowed for much more efficient use of time. “What’s important to know about robotics is that it’s not taking away jobs,” DeSimone says. “Instead, we are reallocating our labor force to other areas of the property. Time is gold in our industry and when you can free up an employee’s time, it’s a huge benefit.”

For Yellowstone Landscape, a national company headquartered in Bunnell, FL, the possibility of reallocating labor resources to other areas of the property was highly appealing. “Some of the tasks that are most important to the client are trimming, edging, cleaning up beds, and caring for the flowers,” says General Manager Ben Collinsworth, who is spearheading much of the robotics trials at Yellowstone. “These are tasks that are not being replaced by a robot. If we can free up some of our crews’ time on these huge sites to spend more time on those detail-oriented tasks, the clients are ultimately happier, too, because those areas are getting more attention.”

The Logistics

As far as the logistics, most often, landscapers have the mower “live” at the client’s property and it returns to an on-site charging station upon mowing completion. On a residential property, the mower might be simply plugged into an outdoor outlet. On a commercial site, where electricity may not be as easily accessible, a solar-based charging station could be the answer. In this sense, everything is truly running autonomously.

While the mower lives onsite, the landscaper is responsible for ongoing maintenance, such as monthly blade changes. Robotic mowers typically come with an app and Langton says they allow clients access to the app to monitor progress. Since ongoing customer buy-in is important, the practice aids engagement.

Of course, leaving the mower on-site isn’t the only way to structure a robotic mower operation. Yellowstone is experimenting with bringing the robots along to each jobsite when they perform services. Collinsworth says in some of the companies’ regional locations, an on-site set-up will make more sense while in others, if the crew is already coming out regularly, bringing the mowers each time might be more prudent.

Green Advantages

Frank Mariani, CEO and owner of Mariani Landscape in Lake Bluff, IL, says that robots are working well for his residential clients. “Everyone likes to be cut on Thursday or Friday so that their lawn looks great going into the weekend,” Mariani says. “Well, with the robots, every day is Friday because they come out and cut every single day.” That daily mow is a definite benefit of the technology in residential and commercial settings, says Langton.

“[The robotic mower] is cutting a much shorter amount [of grass blade] at a time so there are no grass clippings to haul away,” continues Mariani. “And we’ve found that fewer weeds end up going to seed because they are constantly getting cut before they have the chance. That’s ultimately meant we’re using less herbicides, too.”

Those minimal, daily cuts are also better for the health of the grass, helping it to grow better, says Andrew Blanchford, owner of Blanchford Landscape Group in Bozeman, MT. His residential landscaping company has been moving toward robotics where they feel it makes sense—such as remote and difficult-to-access homes, and clients who are serious about privacy. Given their location in northern Montana, many of Blanchford’s clients are second homeowners who come to the area to vacation. They also get a lot of interest in robotics from clients who are eco-conscious.

For Mariani, that’s been a driving force. “The sustainability aspect of robotic mowing and the fact that they do not burn fossil fuels or leave car-bon footprint is important to me,” he says. “While we still have more regular mowers than automated mowers, my goal is to begin reversing that.”

DeSimone says there are always going to be sites where a regular mower makes more sense, but she too, hopes to move in the direction of more robotics. “There are just so many benefits,” she comments. “Even theft is a big one. In the spring and summer, we deal with our fair share of theft when there are break-ins to our trailers and our mowers are stolen. But nobody can use a robotic mower if it’s stolen because there are safeguards built in. And the GPS-tracking system allows you to quickly locate a stolen mower.”

Mariani adds that there’s a safety factor, too. No matter how much training is put in, there is always a risk of someone getting hurt on a mower. But robotics eliminates that risk.

Labor Shortage

Numerous benefits about robotics can be appealing—the sustain-ability, the safety, the efficiency—but it’s the labor factor that may likely drive most landscapers to make their first purchase. “As an industry, the biggest problem that we have is a lack of labor, so we can’t just go on ignoring robotics as a solution to that,” Langton says.

Mike Bedell, owner of Bedell Property Management in Milford, MI also feels the labor shortage will promote the adoption of robotics. “I think that labor is just so tough,” he commented during a Q&A period with members of the ECHO Means Business (EMB) User Advisory Group (UAG) in March. “Robotics has the power to play a large role in the next 10 years… it will be a very viable solution…there may be a lot less companies running around cutting lawns.” Likening it to the automotive industry in his state, he says cost and infrastructure issues will need to be addressed.

Yet most of the other UAG participants greeted the robotics question with a fair amount of skepticism. Jensen “JC” Martinez of Lawn Squad in Spencer, MA said he doesn’t see getting to a point of using robotics in his business. He says many of his clients are elderly and “look forward to the interaction.” He added, “Being a service provider, [it’s about] building relationships.”

Langton admits that team members can be uneasy about automation. His own team was unsure about it, early on. But as DeSimone expressed, robotic mowers are not taking away jobs. “Instead, what we’ve been able to do at the Langton Group is set up more of our team to do hardscaping work,” says Langton. “We’ve also started developing ‘Automation Solutions Experts,’ which would be our team members that not only install robots for new clients, but then service [and monitor] the robots for them, too.” Installation typically involves either laying the boundary wires or setting up the reference station if it’s a wireless solution. Langton continues, “Younger people are really excited about this new technology and about being part of a company that is adopting it.”

Collinsworth also says there is always “fear of the unknown,” and many landscapers still see robotic mowing as an “unknown.” But he says that remaining on the cutting edge of new technology is important for the industry as a whole.“

Landscapers know their machines and how they work and switching to something completely new is frightening in many ways,” he continues. “Although labor is the number one cost in our industry, it can also feel very uncertain to mess with it. But there are larger companies like Yellowstone already forging the way in this area. As a larger company we feel that obligation to be a part of the change.”

DeSimone says she also understands the reluctance—but feels it’s important for the industry to be open-minded. “We’ve done things one way for so long now that it can be difficult to take that leap,” she says. “But our industry is changing, and we need to be willing to change with it. Change is tough—it always has been—but we should ultimately be more afraid of not adapting. If we aren’t willing to change, we run the risk of becoming obsolete as the industry changes around us.”

Getz is an award-winning freelance writer based in Royersford, PA.

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