A.I.-powered robotic lawnmowers help you reclaim your summer days
It’s the middle of summer. It’s in the 90s. (Fahrenheit.) It’s so humid that even a short walk to the mailbox leaves you drenched in sweat. Mowing the grass is the last thing you want to do.
Unfortunately, last weekend was much the same. And now, your homeowner’s association is eagerly awaiting the chance to send you a nastygram. Even worse, your overly ambitious neighbor Tom cut his grass three days ago, so your front yard comparatively is looking more and more like a jungle.
Salvation (and a sweat-free Saturday), though, might be within reach thanks to robotics and artificial intelligence.
Just as the Roomba revolutionized vacuuming, robotic lawnmowers are hoping to transform lawncare. It is, in many ways, a fairly rudimentary technology at the moment, but manufacturers are leaning more heavily into A.I. to create more efficient machines that increase your spare time.
“We wanted to give people their weekends back,” says Greg Janey, vice president, residential and landscape contractor business at The Toro Company. “It could be a customer with an eighth of an acre who wants to spend time with family and friends. It could be a customer who has up to an acre…that…appreciates a yard that looks like a fairway every day.”
Toro is a newcomer in the robotic vacuum space. Its product, which doesn’t even have a formal retail name yet, will begin taking pre-orders this fall, with availability beginning in spring 2023. It’s not entering a crowded market, per se, but competitors are certainly out there. Husqvarna, Worx, and even Segway have products on the market already.
Robotic mowers tend to cost about the same as a rider mower, somewhere in the $1,000 to $1,500 range. And in the U.S., they represent less than 5% of the U.S. lawnmower market, estimates Katie Roberts, a senior product manager at Positec Tool Corp., which makes the Worx Landroid.
“Not a lot of people know they exist, and when they do find out, their minds are kind of blown,” she says.
The story is a bit different in parts of Europe, however.
“[Buyers were] initially early adopters, which is, I think, where you are in the States today, but now in Sweden, this is mainstream,” says Patrik Jagenstedt, director of advanced development at Husqvarna’s Robotics & AI Lab. “If you buy a new mower, you would buy a robotic mower…It’s so much more than not having to do the lawnmower, it’s the relief, the peace of mind that you don’t have to think about it.”
Not a Roomba
Given their somewhat similar shapes and the seemingly random path in which they operate, it’s easy to lump robotic vacuums and lawnmowers in the same category, but the technology behind them is notable different. Vacuums bounce infrared sensors off of the wall and ceiling to get a sense of location. Outside, though, there’s no surface for those signals to rebound.
That’s why boundary wire, which sends out a low-power signal that the mower recognizes as a no-go zone, has been the perimeter marker of choice so far. Before they begin operating a robot mower, owners must mark the edges of their lawn, as well as cordon off areas like gardens and trees. (It’s a sometimes-frustrating process that takes more time than you might imagine.)
But change is in the works for some manufacturers. Husqvarna is moving towards a GPS-based system in its commercial models now, says Jagenstedt, and expects to launch that for consumer models in 2023 or 2024. And Toro’s forthcoming model will use a proprietary 3D vision technology called SmartZone, that creates a digital map of your property as you walk it along the perimeter and regularly learns more as it mows. Adjustments can be made in the accompanying app.
Landroid, says Roberts, is investigating two options: GPS (though it worries about interference from trees and, in some cases, the house, to the signal) and real-time kinematic positioning, which uses a base station to correct for interferences with the GPS.
What’s it like?
A wireless option will, frankly, be welcome by users. Setting up the boundary wire yourself is likely to take several hours depending on the area you plan to cover. (We spent over two-and-a-half hours prepping a yard measuring less than a quarter-acre for testing.) And if you don’t secure it flush with the grass or taut enough, you can pretty much count on the mower slicing the wire and having to do some impromptu repairs. (Electrical tape is your friend.)
But once that work is complete (and, in fairness, there are services you can hire to do that work for you), the hard work is done. We tested a Landroid Model M, which followed a seemingly random pattern around the yard, trimming the grass with a spinning disk with three rotating cutting blades.
The system communicates with its base/charging station via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and the mower can be controlled from your phone. (An optional ultrasonic detection peripheral helps it navigate around trees and other obstacles.) And if the mower senses a downpour, it delays its daily scheduled cut by a time period of your choosing before venturing out. And the cut it provides is excellent.
When operating, the system is remarkably quiet compared to push and rider mowers—and could easily be run at night without disturbing neighbors. (Toro and Husqvarna say their systems are similarly silent.)
If someone is foolish enough to pick up the mower while it’s operating, it instantly shuts down. And should someone steal the system, it locks down, requiring a PIN code. (An optional peripheral on Landroid will also provide its location.)
Husqvarna’s device sounds an alarm if someone tries to abscond with the mower and has a GPS device built in. Janey says Toro’s will include a tracking device and also has an anti-theft code requirement.
The bigger picture
A.I. in the mowers themselves isn’t the end game. Husqvarna’s Jagenstedt notes that the company’s robots are open sourced, and can connect to Amazon’s Echo or Google digital assistants, letting them integrate with other products.
“We do not see that we will be completely owning this,” he says. “We should open our platform to other products.”
Toro has a different take, with plans to integrate its mower into a larger ecosphere of smart yard products, from lighting to irrigation, which will be built off of the technology the company designed for golf courses and municipalities.
“I think there’ a growing level of homeowners that are extending their living experience into the outdoors,” says Janey. “And with that, the expectations of a smart, connected experience come with that. The way that Toro as a company is able to leverage our more enterprise technologies, everything we do is designed around outdoor technology.”
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