Revolutionize Grounds Management with Autonomous Mowers in 2023
No time is better than now to start using autonomous mowers.
For grounds managers looking to make the leap into autonomous mower technology, McElroy says no time is better than now.
“2022 might as well have been 10 years ago, with the number of advancements that were made with robotic and autonomous mowers,” McElroy says.
Robotic mowers have made great strides in their method of cutting. Early versions of the mowers operated like a Roomba robotic vacuum that autonomously cleans floors based on sensors that guide the mower away from trouble spots and other hazards, such as chairs and garbage cans.
“In 2022, everything was dominated by wire boundary and random movement,” McElroy says. “But in 2023, you had the launch of products where you have directional mowing, and striping, which makes the mowers a lot more efficient.”
Updated robotic mower models can operate using a global positioning system so operators can control the direction of the mowers and set the pattern for the machines to operate.
“You can just drop these mowers off, they know the area, and you’ll get a text when they’re done,” McElroy says. “There’s going to be more leaps the next few years, but the biggest leaps you’re going to see over the next 5 to 10 years occurred this year. It’s made it feasible for golf, sports turf, landscape and facilities management to deploy autonomous mowers.”
Making the move
McElroy says grounds managers need to start dipping their toes into the robotic market.
As with the transition to any new technology, conversion costs cannot be ignored and need to factor into any decisions managers make when transitioning fleets from gasoline to electric autonomous machines.
Commercial robotic mowers can range from $3,000 to $32,000, depending on the make and model and the features and performance managers want from the machines, according to mowingmagic.com. When specifying the autonomous mowers that best meet facility needs, managers need to consider such factors as range of battery charge, cutting width, desired cutting height and land topography. Other considerations include the need to install battery charging infrastructure and getting operators trained on operating the machines.
“If you look at a golf course, they’re going to have well over a million dollars' worth of equipment in their shop that they use on a regular basis,” McElroy says. “You just can’t replace that wholesale and completely transition your staff overnight. The same thing is true with any landscape company or if you’re a university facilities management team.”
Autonomous mowers also can help managers deal with the hiring crunch that has hit many industries since the COVID-19 pandemic. Mowers also provide managers with the capability of mowing at all hours of the day, though some managers might be concerned about vandalism occurring when mowers are in operation overnight or curious onlookers disrupt the intended paths of the mowers.
“During times like COVID when you lose labor, you can have a robotic mower that can come in and literally take over and mow an entire area,” Straw says.
While the process of embracing autonomous mowing will take time for grounds managers – and the C-Suite types who write the checks – Straw and McElroy are bullish on the possibilities.
“I think over the next few years, there are so many universities doing research on return on investment and the environmental benefits of autonomous mowers,” Straw says. “I think over the next couple of years, we’ll see more hard data on that. But I think when facilities leaders really do sit down and start crunching numbers, they will realize that autonomous mowers are going to benefit them from a labor and cost standpoint.”
Dave Lubach is the executive editor of the facilities market. He has more than eight years of experience writing about facility management and maintenance issues.