Rise of the Machines – Robotic Mowers Set for Massive Growth in Commercial Sector
Robotic mowers have enjoyed popularity in domestic markets for years. Now, commercial operators are also about to embrace robotic mowers in a big way. JOHN POWER talks to Jason Carter from Robot Lawn Mowers Australia about the imminent jump in robot sales in the commercial mowing scene…
Make no mistake: robotic mowers are about to turn conventional mowing activity on its head in the commercial sector.
Soon, small robotic mowers will be commonplace in schools, colleges, sporting grounds, golf courses, and similar broadacre spaces.
Over the last decade, robotic mowers have been restricted mainly to small domestic holdings and acreage properties, where owners have been keen to sidestep mowing chores, reduce emissions, and alleviate noise by using battery-based technologies.
While these domestic devices have matured significantly in terms of tough performance, range, and reliability, their ‘Achilles heel’ has always been their dependence on underground wires to define operating boundaries.
This kind of wired infrastructure poses few difficulties on small lifestyle properties; however, commercial operators have been unwilling to accept the high costs and logistical challenges of installing wires around commercial-scale lawn areas. Wires have also been regarded as problematic in manicured surfaces such as specialist sporting arenas, which are subject to deep scarification and coring maintenance regimes.
All those physical constraints are about to vanish, according to Queensland-based Jason Carter, Director of Robot Lawn Mowers Australia, due to very recent advances in wireless operating systems. This technology allows commercial property managers to program robotic mowers and outline operating areas using satellites: no more buried wires.
According to Jason, current customer ratios of 50% domestic, 30% acreage, and 20% commercial (including less than 5% large playing surfaces) are on the verge of being overturned thanks to an expected surge in GPS-based commercial mowing activity.
“GPS RTK (real-time kinematic) is a technology that has been around for decades in applications like laser graders on the side of the highway, or laser grading on tractors in paddocks, but it’s never been cheap enough to put inside a robot [mower],” Jason explains. “It was cost-prohibitive to the extent you would have been looking at $50,000–$70,000 robots that were still only capable of mowing about 4000m2, whereas now we have $4,000 robots that are capable of mowing 10,000m2; we’ve got $20,000 robots that are capable of mowing 36,000m2, so the dollar-per-square-metre rate is starting to get a lot lower.”
GPS RTK-guided robotic mowers, Jason continues, use signals from at least 10 satellites simultaneously to provide extremely precise positional guidance. This technology is the cornerstone of broadacre robotic mowing designed to deliver hassle-free, automated service without the need for traditional heavy-duty ride-on mowers or tractor-mounted mowing decks.
Undoubtedly, the incorporation of satellite-positioning systems into high-quality robotic mowers is a game changer. And the commercial market, according to Jason, is waking up to the social and financial advantages of quieter, neighbour-friendlier mowing systems that also dispense with heavy labour and fuel costs.
NOT ALL ROBOTS ARE EQUAL
An upswing in the commercial use of robotic mowers, however, must go hand in hand with client education, Jason advises, so users get the right robotic units to suit their specific applications. “Advice, advice, advice,” he suggests, should be the starting mantra behind any purchase. Too many customers, he warns, buy robotic mowers (particularly online) based on marketing razzamatazz rather than local advice from qualified experts.
“I was the first independent robotic mower retailer in Australia, so I’ve seen the market evolve significantly since starting eight years ago,” he says, noting personal annual business growth of 100% for the first five years, and 50% annual growth over the past three years during the pandemic era.
Over this time, Jason says he has observed a wave of rapid converts to the robotic mower industry… particularly among Tesla owners! Nevertheless, enthusiasm should always be guided by plenty of real-world information so customers understand how robotic mowers differ from traditional mowers.
Let’s go back a step and summarise some of the key general attributes of robotic mowers:
- Whereas ride-on or tractor-style mowers perform relatively infrequent mowing passes (perhaps weekly or fortnightly, depending on location, labour availability, and desired manicure, encountering very dense grass growth between sessions), a robotic mower is designed for continual use as a ‘maintenance mower’, ideally never cutting more than 2-5mm turf height at any time. This frequent fringe cutting removes the need for heavier cutting gear.
- Robotic mowers can be used 24/7 – there are no practical reasons against night-time mowing (though localised nocturnal fauna can cause problems in some parts of the world). This open-ended schedule means small robotic mowers can cover great areas more regularly in a given week compared with daytime-only, tractor-style units.
- Robotic mowers, ideally, should mow 100% of a given area at least three times per week in warmer climates, less in cooler climates.
- High-quality robotic mowers (Ambrogio, G-Force, Husqvarna, Kress, STIHL, etc) can mow approximately 500–700m2 per hour. Larger models like the soon-to-be-released Echo will be able to cover 2,000m2 per hour. In Melbourne, for instance, a golf course manager should allow for one robot per 20,000m2, which might equate to 5–10 robots for a typical 18-hole golf course covering 20-30 acres.
- When budgeting for the purchase of robotic mowers, allow for a cost of approximately $1 per square metre of coverage. Estimates can fluctuate depending on microclimates and restrictions on mowing times (in which case extra mowers might be needed).
Given the abovementioned general performance characteristics of robotic mowers in standard circumstances, it’s time to consider more property-specific matters such as local terrain and holes, slope, grass species, as well as thatching. Jason says one of the biggest confusions in the marketplace relates to the slope of a property, and the capacity of robotic mowers to handle gradients.
“We run three slope ratings on every product we have, so customers can see the maximum slope inside the boundary,” he says. “Anything that is 1m inside the area must be able to handle the max. slope capability, which is generally between 35% and 75% gradient. Which is not the same thing as degrees – Australians are used to degrees, but gradients are approximately half of what degrees are. So 45 degrees is 100% gradient.
The max edge slope capability is around 10%–20%; that’s all they can handle on the edge.”
In extreme cases, Jason adds, 4WD and 4W-steering robotic mowers can overcome the challenges of steep terrains; these robots can also increase your edge slope capability to up to 55%.
Another pitfall for unwary customers relates to grass species. Kikuyu and buffalo grasses are extremely hardy and can affect the performance of robots mowers that are ill-suited to them. “What happens is the front wheels sink into the grass and the back wheels are trying to drive the robot into the grass – in a straight line there’s no trouble; it’s when you’re trying to turn that you have problems.
“So if you have a hat trick – which is holes in your yard, a bit of a slope on the edge, and kikuyu or buffalo – then you might have to go for a $7,000 4WD, 4W-steering machine that will actually be able to turn itself around at the bottom of your slope.”
Finally, some customers fear that ongoing cutting will lead to severe thatch build-up. Interestingly, Jason says frequent mowing of small lengths of grass has the opposite effect: tiny grass clippings tend to settle more deeply in turf and decompose more readily than dense clippings. Similarly, concerns about continually bringing clippings into a house or indoor commercial setting are unfounded, as miniscule clippings do not linger on turf surfaces where they might adhere to footwear.
MEASURE AND ASSESS
As a means of addressing property-specific features of a property, Jason says customers are invited to photograph or video their land so precise configurations and obstacles can be measured and appraised. Combined with digital imagery from services like Google Earth, it is possible to make careful observations of each customer’s property so mowing requirements can be matched to precise mowing solutions.
Thanks to a massive inventory of makes and models, Jason says, it is almost always possible to find a robotic mower for every application, no matter how extreme the apparent hurdles.
“We’re big on the support front, which is the number one thing to get people to understand: talk to someone first,” Jason concludes.
Robot Lawn Mowers Australia is in Underwood, Queensland, and serves domestic and acreage customers nationally, as well as commercial customers between Ballina and Harvey Bay.
Visit robotlawnmowers.com.au for more information.