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Smart *—Look out...here comes the autonomous lawnmower!

Oct. 27, 2021
As someone who mowed approximately 10,846 lawns during my teenage years, the news about the robotic lawnmower piqued my interest. Or, more appropriately, it raised my blood-pressure.

Why couldn’t they have invented this thing in 1986? I would have leased one, inputted the coordinates for the neighbors’ lawns I’d promised to mow each week, then relaxed in a hammock while my autonomous laborer did my dirty work. “Don’t forget the parkways, robot!”

Here’s the scoop: San Francisco-based Electric Sheep Robotics turns commercially available landscaping devices into autonomous machines with the goal of solving the industry’s labor shortage and increasing margins. They currently offer the clamp-on Dexter Mega robot for gas and electric lawn mowers. (They don’t, however, offer advice to emergency call centers for handling the frantic phone calls to 911 with reports of runaway lawnmowers.)

“The company is tackling the industry’s single most pressing challenge, a decades-long shortage of reliable labor,” they note, which slightly offended me as a former, reliable lawn laborer. “This has often resulted in businesses that are unable to grow beyond a certain size even if the demand is present.”

Fair enough. The inventors explain how more than 50% of landscape maintenance involves lawn-mowing, a tedious and repetitive process made physically grueling by exposure to harsh weather. (Don’t I know it.) This exacerbates the $105B industry’s labor shortages, they note, the low growth and the shrinking margins.

The robo-mower promises to solve those problems. The Electric Sheep Robotics program can be launched with no upfront costs through a robots-as-a-service model. There are hundreds of thousands of commercial mowers being used today, the company notes, and this autonomous system is able to deploy across this already existing and well established platform.  

“The acuity of the need is so deep and the willingness to try autonomy so intense that we have been overwhelmed by the response,” said Nag Murty, Electric Sheep Robotics CEO and co-founder, who shares with his partners a background in engineering, entrepreneurship and, yep, landscaping.

Their robot easily attaches to new or existing lawn mowers and receives over-the-air updates, they claim. It requires minimal training, they claim. And, they claim, these retrofitted assets can mow any type of grass fully autonomously.

The robots utilize cutting edge (ha ha) technology including LIDAR, cameras, GPS and ultrasonic sensors for ultra-precise maneuvering across diverse terrain, whereas the technology in my lawn-mowing days consisted of a Sony Walkman and a pair of hand-trimmers. All robots are monitored while in use and incorporate a safety-rated system capable of detecting perimeter breaches in even the most adverse conditions—dog!!! They are built to the R15.08 standard for self-driving robots.

While the company is only coming out of stealth this August, it has already raised some $4 million in funding, per executives. (I charged $12 per lawn back in 1986, BTW.) “With an elegant and simple retrofit approach that doesn’t require any change to an existing gas or electric mower, Electric Sheep automates the existing fleet and unleashes productivity, thus unlocking enormous revenue potential,” said Apoorva Pandhi of Foundation Capital.

We shall see.

I recommend checking out the sizzle reel of these things at ElectricSheepRobotics.com. It’s really jarring to see video of the grass-slicing machines operating on their own, zipping uniform lines into lawns, making sharp turns around trees, rambling down green hills…with nobody at the wheel. It’s like a scene out of a Three Stooges episode. It’s like they’ve supercharged the cute little Roomba and released to the wild equipped with soulless, mindless blades.

To highlight the safety of these things the video shows a human landscaper, head down and ears muffled, manning a trimmer while the active mower barrels right toward him. (I hummed the Jaws theme during this scene.) The roaring, driverless machine gets closer, closer, closer but then, within a few feet of slicing off the poor sap’s fee, it halts. Success!

It’s pretty cool to see. It got me dreaming about having access to this smart technology during my sweaty lawn-mowing days of the '80s.

And get this—Electric Sheep Robotics plans to expand their autonomous offerings to snow removal, pest control and fire prevention once their landscaping business proves successful. If you think a driverless lawn-mower looks weird, just wait until you get a load of the robotic fly swatter.

Chris McNamara is the editor in chief of Smart Industry