Transforming Landscapes with Autonomous Mowing
The need to reduce carbon footprint and address staffing concerns steers managers toward autonomous mowers.
It would be premature to say that institutional and commercial facilities are in the age of autonomous mowing.
The numbers of autonomous mowers operating in the United States is probably less than 100,000, says Scott McElroy, a professor of weed science and turfgrass management at Auburn University and the owner of Scotsman Turf Robotics. While the global market for autonomous mowers is valued at $1.5 billion and expected to rise to $3.7 billion by 2027, according to market research firm Mordor Intelligence, the technology’s appeal has been slow to catch on in this country.
But the arrival of autonomous mowing is probably coming soon in the institutional and commercial market.
“Everybody who’s out there in grounds management needs to have some foot in the door right now with autonomous technology,” McElroy says. “Right now, they need to test it out because from what I see, it takes some time to really understand how you want to fully deploy it.”
While autonomous mowers have been around since the 1990s only as a niche product, grounds managers in the institutional and commercial market are slowly realizing the mowers’ appeal.
“Around 2020, autonomous mowers were taking off and surpassing any of the new technologies,” says Chase Straw, assistant professor of turfgrass science at Texas A&M University. “As far as adoption, especially at the municipality level, the park and recreation and public school districts, they’re very popular.”
As facilities work to lower their carbon footprints, moving on from gasoline-powered mowers is a logical step. According to a research paper from the University of Florida titled Autonomous Compared with Conventional Mower Use on St. Augustinegrass Lawn Quality” from 2022, “autonomous mowers reduce energy consumption by up to three times compared to gasoline-powered motors while also reducing emission, dust production and noise emissions.”
In addition to their emissions benefits, autonomous mowers produce a high-quality cut by using smaller razor-type blades that measure in size of about 1.5 inches compared to the 20-inch blades of traditional mowers.
“Autonomous mowers can run daily, and the small cutting edge of the razor blades on autonomous mowers can improve quality of cut, decrease leaf chlorosis, and reduce turfgrass stress from mowing,” according to the paper. “In tall fescue, autonomous mowers increased turfgrass density and decreased average leaf width resulting in higher turfgrass quality. Autonomous mowers can also reduce spontaneous weed cover compared with conventional mowers.”
Autonomous mowers also provide other agronomic benefits.
“This being a new area of research, I think there are a lot of possibilities that we don’t know yet, but one that I think is interesting is potentially less disease pressure from using autonomous mowers,” Straw says. “The whole reasoning or thought process behind it is that they’re mowing early in the morning or during the night. With the frequency of cut, you’re just able to be out there and cut it every single day.”
The machines also enable operators to access hard-to-reach areas.
“The nice thing about autonomous mowers is they’re really lightweight,” Straw says. “For a municipality or independent school district that has native soils areas or sports fields, whenever it rains, they typically get very soft, and you can’t get out there with a big, heavy-duty mower to mow so the grass grows tall. When they finally get out there with the actual mower, they’re causing ruts or they’re scalping and a bunch of other issues. And then you overcorrect, and they just end up causing more issues.”
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.