Are the robots really coming?

As one of William Arthur Ward’s famous quotes exclaims, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” Throughout history, this observation has proven true.

Computing technology, advances in artificial intelligence (AI), miniaturisation of electro-mechanical devices and battery power storage have made a massive impact on how we work and live. Technology has enabled the rapid development of autonomous devices, or ‘robots’ as they are commonly called.

Manufacturing, research technology, mining vehicles, medicine, defence, agriculture and distribution of goods are a few of the areas where autonomous processes have revolutionised efficiency, increased accuracy, lowered costs and saved time.

Agricultural robots

Robots have proven themselves in large scale agriculture and industry, where the technology is passed down to broad applications and finally, to consumer products that eliminate drudgery and repetitive, time-consuming tasks.

As with most new technologies, commercial applications are the real driver, trickling down to consumer level as they become more affordable and easier to produce. The example of ‘agbots’ is a prime illustration of this. Robotic devices that can identify ripe produce and pick certain crops, with the intelligence to bypass fruit not yet ready for harvest are already being trialled.

A typical example of an agbot is a German designed weeder that models its environment over time and space. This robotic device uses multi-spectral cameras to locate and model weeds, destroying them with an electrical charge.

Robotic household appliances have tackled the most mundane daily tasks such as vacuuming the floor, while robotic mowers are slowly becoming accepted in Australia by people who do not want the drudgery of having to mow their grass.

Affordability is a major challenge

Larry Blamer, Managing Director of STIHL Australia, said the major challenge for the consumer market is getting the cost down to a level where the product is affordable for a large percentage of purchasers. As he puts it, “In theory, the technology exists to make a robot that can do almost anything, however no one could afford it.”

“We are launching our STIHL robotic mowers in 2019 and have sample units here now which are being used for product introduction and training our dealer network.

“Robotic mower technology needs installation which requires a person on site to carry out this task and who can make repairs in the event of damage to the boundary wire. 

“With sophisticated electronics at the heart of robotic equipment, many retailers may not have staff to make field service calls and the necessary diagnosis and repairs to the mower and the guidance system. We will be training our committed dealers to carry out this service for the customers. We will be starting with a limited number of select dealers who will be trained as part of our strategy to ensure the purchase of a robot mower is a perfectly seamless and comfortable experience for our customers.”

Convenience is a key driver of change

“In the EU countries, where STIHL has been selling robotic mowers for much longer, there are more robotic lawnmowers sold than push mowers. Sales have been driven by people in search of convenience. People are time poor and they don’t want to waste their weekends and free time spending hours outside doing the mowing.”

“The biggest issue for most people is the cost difference when compared with conventional mowers. Including the cost of the machine, and its installation, can be up to three to four times as much for the robotic system, however the payback is in time saving. Even though a robotic mower is still a costly item, many people see this as having a shorter payback time when compared to hiring a mower service.” 

“While the mower is a premium price, the bonus is a premium look to your lawn. People are realising that even in the peak growing season, robotic mowers cut every day, so the grass always looks in perfect condition. This feature will be a powerful motivation for some people.”

“We see our task as creating a totally seamless user experience through a knowledgeable dealer network and addressing concerns such as theft of a robot mower, which is overcome by the use of an automatic disabling code built in to the system. Future developments will include moisture sensors which are integrated with an irrigation system that will tell the mower when not to go out to mow if the grass is too wet.”

“We see the next jump in sales likely to come in outer suburban areas where people have larger properties with big lawn areas. People in this market have an attractive proposition if they have up to 4,000 square metres to mow. Their decision may be to spend around $5,000 on a ride-on mower or invest in a robotic system for around $3,000, which has the added bonus of not having to drive it” Mr Blamer said.

Miniaturisation and control systems

STIHL sees the miniaturisation and increased power of computer electronic control systems as one of the key drivers of autonomous OPE. 

STIHL says these advances mean manufacturers can get longer run times of battery powered OPE. This viability has made robot appliances a reality. As well as battery technology getting better, the motor and battery management systems have become highly advanced to a point where load sensing automatically adjusts motor power as ground conditions change. 

More run time is produced from the same battery by managing the motor, which gives STIHL around 35 per cent more battery run time as a result of more sophisticated motor management.

So confident of the battery and robotic future for appliances, STIHL has created a new department called “digitisation” where products are being developed as smart controllers for the entire outdoor environment. The company is treating robotics and automation as a high priority and sees the robotic mower eventually being integrated into the entire outdoor environment, including irrigation and outdoor lighting systems. STIHL intends to be a market leader in lawn equipment as the market transitions from conventional petrol machines to more automated battery powered equipment.

More brands in the market

Masport’s Product Manager, Simon Gaunt, said its new Robolinho robotic mower would be available to the Australian market in November 2018 under the ‘solo by AL-KO’ brand.

These mowers are currently being sold throughout Europe and are designed for lawn areas up to 2000 m². As a major distributor of mowing equipment, Masport is looking to its large distribution network of specialist dealers for the introduction of the product. 

“Consumers are becoming aware of the reliability and performance of battery powered appliances and there is a high level of consumer confidence”, Mr Gaunt said. “One of the key drivers of battery powered equipment is the leap in efficiency of Lithium-ion batteries and their management systems . ”

“Pricing up to now has somewhat been a barrier to volume growth. For those consumers who want the job of mowing done for them, the alternative is to hire a contractor, however the cost of a professional mowing service in the long term will be greater than having your own robot mower.”

“The main driver of change is the fact that people are time poor and don’t want to mow their lawns. The trend towards ‘smart’ homes is delivering an expectation that increasingly, we expect machines to do the tasks for us while we would rather be doing more interesting and fulfilling things with our families. The advantage of the robotic mower is it will cut your lawn, do it day and night, will do it quietly and deliver a healthy-looking lawn.” 

“The first solo model we are introducing, the Robolinho 700E, is designed to mow areas up to 700 square metres. In the future we will be expanding a range of robot mowers that will have the capacity to manage much larger areas.”

“At this stage there are no plans to introduce any additional robotic outdoor power equipment. Further down the track we will look to introduce smart phone control for the Robolinho robotic lawnmowers as well as AL-KO water pumps, which will have applications such as transferring water between tanks or simply watering the lawn.”

“Although Robotic mowers have been around for some time, the market is finally catching up and is now ready for this style of mowing that is very strong in other parts of the world. We are confident that the growth in the coming years will happen, and based on the feedback by consumers who have experienced robotic mowers, is that they have been very impressed with the results, and the fact that something else is taking care of the lawn for them.” 

“The key to success will be educating the market in this innovative technology and creating awareness. Tech savvy people who are living in ‘smart’ homes are receptive of these technologies and it will probably be this segment of the market that will be among the first true adopters of robotic OPE,” Mr Gaunt said.

Busy professionals, people with limited mobility, corporate bodies with common grassed areas and property owners in general would all benefit from moving to robotic mowers , saving on time, money and maintenance costs in the long term. It is conceivable that future landscape planning for grassed areas will be designed with the capabilities and limitations of robotic mowers in mind. Some of these considerations may include curbing away from walls and other obstacles.

“In the future the smart home will definitely be a driver of sales volume for robotic mowers and potentially other outdoor devices.”

“We know many dealers are carrying out installation of robotic mowing systems for consumers and there are a few specialist installation companies emerging. A number of consumers are also happy to undertake the installation themselves as they don’t require a licensed electrical technician and are simple to set up.”

“While there will continue to be strong demand for petrol powered equipment well into the future, specialist mower dealers will increasingly need the expertise and knowledge to handle the new technology that comes with high performance battery powered equipment. There is no doubt that dealers will need to embrace this new market and bring themselves up to speed to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by this new technology”, Mr Gaunt said.

The future for robotics in other OPE

How far away are other OPE robotics? For the moment, robotic mowers are set to make the greatest impact as successful trimmers are still some way off, despite the fact there are some commercial laser-guided robotic trimmers on the market. These have been used only for very long hedgerows, where amazingly even results have been achieved, but trimmers for the consumer market are still a long way off. 

For dealers in outdoor power equipment, it is certainly going to be an exciting future as more electric/battery-powered autonomous devices in brackets robots find their way into the market. There is no doubt that specialist dealers are being presented with a great opportunity to help consumers in their choices of equipment and open the possibility for new revenue streams as this market develops.