Hey robot, mow the lawn
Company creates autonomous mower, aboostfor landscaping industry
Labor shortages are hitting more industries, but they have plagued landscapers for years now, leaving them begging for applicants who never show up, fighting over a limited number of guest worker visas and unable to take on new contracts.
Scythe Robotics in Longmont has quietly toiled away for the past three years on an innovation it claims will help alleviate labor shor tages and bring the landscaping industr y into the technological age — a fully autonomous, allelectric commercial mower, no cheeks in the seat required.
“Ever y landscaper we talked to said they didn’t have enough workers to do their jobs today,” said CEO Jack Morrison, who founded Scythe Robotics with Isaac Rober ts and Davis Foster in 2017.
Scythe, he said, has come up with a technological solution that costs about 40% less than a traditional mower and avoids landscapers having to hire and fire workers with the changing of the seasons or buy expensive mowing machines.
Morrison, who came to Colorado for a robotics doctorate program, said he got the idea for a robotic mower while trimming the grass on his two-acre plot, a time-killing task he never felt he mastered.
The company’s automated mower, built from the ground up and in its fourth generation, has gone through extensive testing in Colorado, Texas and Florida and will move soon into production. And no, the mower won’t mimic the overpromised but undelivered claims that surround self-driving cars, Morrison promised.
The Scythe mower has eight high-definition resolution cameras to help it “see” where it is going and distinguish among objects, such as a tree stump, valve cover or sidewalk. A dozen ultrasound sensors also help the mower to understand and navigate its environment. And if those fail to catch an object, bumper sensors help it adjust or stop if it runs into something unexpected, say a rabbit or squirrel.
At the center of ever ything are proprietar y programs and an energy-ef ficient processor that make sense of all the information coming in. Batteries power the mowers, reducing pollution, noise levels and fuel costs. A human can sit in the mower and operate it manually, or set it loose to run on its own and focus on other items, such as weeding or trimming.
The mower maps out the area to be mowed, gathering information on boundaries and land features, such as hills and low spots. It adjusts its speed based on the thickness of the grass, can cut at var ying angles and in specific patterns, say a checkerboard.
All the information is collected to use for the next time the area is mowed. Effectively, the mower isn’t just mowing but learning. And if it has to stop for any reason, say a breakdown, the information can be downloaded to another machine, allowing it to pick up right where the last one left of f.
“I have been happy with what they have been doing. The new model is light years ahead of the other one,” said Don Ward, president and CEO of Ward’s Lawn Ser vice in Longmont, who is helping Scythe tests its new robotic mower.
One big worry with robots is that they will displace lessskilled workers, leaving them with fewer options to make a living and worsening inequality.
“Jobs that are most susceptible to automation tend to involve routine and manual tasks, and those jobs havetraditionally been performed by workers with mid-level skills or low-skilled workers,” Tahsin Saadi Sedik and Jiae Yoo, economists with the International Monetary Fund, wrote in a recent paper on automation.
Ward doesn’t dispute that the robotic mower might him allow to do a job with three workers instead of four or two instead of three. But when he can’t find enough workers willing to run back and for th on a noisy and smelly machine in the searing heat, whatever the pay, that may not be such a bad thing.
His goal is to employ a permanent crew across all seasons, avoiding the need for temporar y hires who are hard to find. Landscapers rely heavily on the H-2B visa program to bring in temporar y workers from Mexico and other countries, but both the Obama and Trump administrations made obtaining those visas more uncer tain and dif ficult.
Mowing represents about 40% of the workload for landscapers in a $102 billion a year industry, Morrison said. Robots will allow workers to focus on the more rewarding and creative aspects of the job rather than the repetitive ones.
“What we are doing is taking the par t of the job that are mundane and dirty, dull and dangerous, off the plates of workers. They have better things than going back and forth, things that require a human touch,” Morrison said.