UT Turf Manager Co-Invents Solar Charging Solution For Robotic Mowers


Former University of Tennessee Turf Manager, Matthew Layne, co-invents Powershed to solve a groundskeeping issue. The tech is already being successfully used at an HOA in Florida.

Turf management at the University of Tennessee (UT) had a problem. “One area of the university’s campus was so tough to access that [grounds] staff   had to scale down a wall holding weed eaters to maintain it—a time-consuming approach,” comments Vice President of UT Research Foundation’s Multi-Campus Office Maha Krishnamurthy, PhD, MBA.

He continues, “A lack of available outlets in that area and his desire for a sustainable solution to this problem led Matthew and UTRF to search for a commercial partner to co-develop Matthew’s innovation about solar charging stations, specifically for small robotic mowers.” The result? Powershed by Solar Alliance, a patent-pending solar powered charging station for robotic lawnmowers.

Now, the tech has moved beyond UT. Flagler Power Equipment recently installed the state’s first Powershed system for the landscapers at J.M. Baker Company to maintain grassy common areas in a St. Augustine, FL housing development.

Here Turf talks with Layne about his inspiration for Powershed, followed by comments from Jason Baker, Vice President/General Manager of J.M. Baker Company, on implementing the technology with mowers from ECHO Robotics.

Turf: Describe the landscape you maintain.

Matthew Layne

Layne: The UT Knoxville properties are made up of a diverse port-folio of landscapes; including urban, residential, commercial, and park settings. I worked for UT for around six years as the turf manager. My job was to oversee the Turf Maintenance Department as well as a few other groups that help maintain a little over 900 acres of property. The main campus in Knoxville makes up 600 acres, with the other 300 acres being satellite properties mostly within Knox County. UT’s campus is like a small city where over 30,000 students come to learn and do research each year and over 9,000 faculty and staff   work hard to make it the best learning environment in the country. It is a special place that has very defined goals of being a leader within all aspects of higher education.

T: What challenges prompted your interest in developing Powershed? Were you already using robotic mowers?

L: I first started looking at robotic mowers for three reasons. First, to help maintain hard-to-access areas. Second, to allow me to move some of my labor force from mowing to other turf maintenance tasks—this would allow me to raise our standard of service without increasing my number of employees. Third, to find a cleaner, quieter, and environmentally friendly way to maintain our turf. Robotic mowing checked all these boxes for me.

Powershed was an idea that allowed me to close the loop when it came to robotic mower placement—and being as environmentally friendly as possible. Throughout campus, we might have access to power outlets here or there; but more than likely they would not be in locations we need. Powershed allowed me to cut the cord to place robotic mowers anywhere the sun shined. This also meant we would be running off 100% clean energy, which goes back to UT’s goals of being a leader in all aspects of higher education. My first robotic mower on campus connected to a normal wall outlet, but we used Powershed to power the rest.

Powershed provides solar charging for robotic mowers. (Photo Credit: Solar Alliance)

T: What ultimately led to the technology? How is it being utilized today?

L: I helped invent and develop Powershed. I was just lucky enough to find a great group of professionals at Solar Alliance who helped create a solution to a problem. Powershed really allowed robotic mowers to become a practical option for me. Without this technology, robotic mowers would have only had a very limited use in our landscape because of power sourcing issues.

[A driving force was] the desire to do more and improve our standards of care—while knowing increasing staff   was not an option for us. This was mixed with a goal of making our department more environmentally friendly. Today, UT has six robotic mowers in operation with more to come in the future. Robotic mower technology is advancing at a rapid pace, getting more efficient and affordable each year. Over time I expect to see them becoming part of what we call normal landscape or turf maintenance. The main takeaway from Powershed for me has been this technology allows robotic mowers to go almost anywhere. It really opens up the market to a lot of possibilities.

Here’s Turf’s interview with Baker, who is now using Powershed to maintain an HOA.

Turf: Describe the landscape you maintain.

Jason Baker

Baker: Our company installs and maintains landscape and irrigation for homeowner associations, single and multifamily residential properties, schools, and commercial settings. This specific project is a multipurpose park that covers 5.7 acres. It is a passive park used mostly for observing nature, as a play area for children, and by radio controlled aircraft enthusiasts. It’s part of a larger HOA. Formerly a construction debris landfill, today it’s a manicured park with a beautiful lawn robotically maintained. The site we chose to develop our robotic program had a lot of great aspects, but none of them were electricity to power the charging station.

T: Were you already using robotic mowers? How did you learn about Powershed?

B: No, this was our first robot and Powershed. When we identified our site and found out there was no electrical source, I sarcastically asked my dealer if there was a solar option for the charging station. He reached out to Ken Liberty at ECHO Robotics and within a couple of hours we had a solar solution. Harvey Abouelata at Solar Alliance had developed and tested Powershed at the UT campus. We are thankful for the partnership between the two.

T: What ultimately led you to adopt the technology?

B: ECHO Robotics allows us the ability to focus our efforts on more critical tasks. Powershed eliminates the need to be tied to a power grid. With these two tools working in unison, we will be able to provide a higher quality of service more efficiently.

T: How is it being utilized today? What are the results?

B: Powershed keeps our mower’s charging station powered 24/7, allowing our robot to provide a quality cut to 5.7 acres daily with almost no human interaction. It has operated flawlessly since day one; allowing my team and me to focus our efforts on other aspects of landscape maintenance for our valued customers.

Click here to read more about robotic mowers in the lawn care and landscaping industry.

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