Friday, 7 December 2018

The Future of Robot Mowers Today

In my travels I am very fortunate to be able to sit in on other people's presentations. While in Denmark last month I was able to sit in on a presentation by William Boogaarts who works for de Enk Groen & Golf in the Netherlands. They have been using robot mowers for years and in my opinion are way ahead of us in North America.




Yes, I know there are a few golf courses that use robot mowers already but they are very few and far between.

In his presentation he showed the impressive self driving mower tech that has been adapted to our current mowing equipment. While impressive, this wasn't what really caught my attention. Thinking that adapting our current mowers to be self driving is completely missing the boat when it comes to robotic mowers.

He showed us how they were using the small robotic mowers from Husqvarna to mow fairways. While not 100% ideal for golf courses currently, they are relatively cheap technology that can do the job TODAY!



The more I think about using these mowers on golf courses the more they make sense and the more I think how our current equipment manufacturers might completely miss the boat and end up like Kodak. Obsolete in only a few short years.

Currently these robotic mowers can mow up to 5000m^2 on a charge which is about 1 fairway. Their HOC only goes down to 20mm which isn't quite short enough for most courses. I think this could probably be modified to cut lower.

On fairways that were mowed with this mower, experienced greenkeepers couldn't tell the difference as far as quality of cut is concerned. These mowers are relentless and will mow as often as is required during the times of day or night that you specify. They can sense where the grass is longer and will return to these areas more often and will skip areas where growth isn't as much. In the near future this data could easily be used to adjust fertilizer rates based off of growth on your course. You could also add sensors to measure moisture and even a small seeder to drop seed on bare areas.

The best part and the thing that the current greens mowing robots can't do is, they require no human interaction to do their job. You just program them and let them go. They charge themselves and mow when needed. Set it and forget it.

Because we aren't paying a person to sit on these mowers we don't need to be concerned about the speed of mowing. They can mow all the time so we can get away with much smaller machines to do the work. This small size brings a lot of benefits to the job.

They don't wear the grass out as much as big mowers. Less wear and tear is a good thing. They can travel over softer areas without sinking and leaving deep ruts. They can also mow slopes up to 45 degrees! This is a big deal for us a Pender Harbour and if the grass is wet here on our 4th hole, we can only mow downhill even with all wheel drive mowers.

This increased turf quality isn't just anecdotal. This study showed that an autonomous mower modified to mow at 1.2cm had better quality grass http://horttech.ashspublications.org/content/28/4/509

Steep slopes are a challenge for conventional mowers.
The best part I think about their small size is how they remove a lot of the mechanical complexity that the larger mowers require. No hydraulics, only 1 spinning blade. No fuel needs.

That brings up the point of transitioning to a sustainable energy use model on our courses. With large mowers their cost will only go up as the batteries are currently way too expensive for such large machines. If there's anything we don't need, is for our mowers to become more expensive. These small mowers can already be powered by battery today so the transition away from fossil fuels is easy and painless with small mowers.

There are downsides though. Because they are so small they can't mulch like our conventional mowers can. Leaves, branches pine cones and probably divots will need to be blown clear. For most of the year this isn't an issue but during the fall and winter storms this might cause issues.

Their docking stations need a power supply. If you have satellite irrigation controllers you could tie into their power supplies. If not it might be expensive to run power to each fairway.

The mowers today are only commercial or home owner specific. The leap to a golf course model is not that big. Maybe a bigger battery and a lower hoc and some sensors for moisture.

Drones will be obsolete as quickly as they became popular. There will be no need for them with these future mowers. I would not invest in drones today after seeing this. They are simply too difficult and costly to fly in some areas. Adding the sensor tech to the mowers bypasses all the issues with drone mounted tech.

Let's do some quick and dirty math to see how the return on investment might be for these mowers.

Cost of 1 current fairway mower. $60-90,000. every 5 years.

Cost to mow 10 ha of grass each season 3 times a week. $15-20,000.

Cost of fuel and mower maintenance each year. $5000+

So the cost of mowing fairways with this quick and dirty math is about $32,000 per year at best.

The robot mower with the highest capacity costs about $4500. You need 20 of these mowers to cut 10ha for a total cost of $90,000. Of course you need to supply power to your fairways but that's a one time cost and will vary a lot course to course.

So for the price of 1 fairway mower you can cut 18 holes of fairways but essentially will have no fuel cost or labor cost. You will have to spend some time cleaning debris off the fairways but that won't be significant. New blades every month or so also won't be a significant expense.

As you can see, the return on investment is about 3 years with these mowers today but you will potentially also get a better product with smaller machines. Many courses have more than 1 fairway mower so the ROI will be even quicker for them. With improvement in the tech it will be even less in short order.

It's crazy how quickly this technology is progressing. Just like other facets of the tech industry a lot of people will be caught off guard. This tech is ready today but with some tweaks it will be the best option for golf courses in every way. If you recently bought a new fairway mower, I expect it could be the last big mower you will buy. If you have an old unit that you are wanting to replace, look into this tech, the return on investment is very quick.

If this intrigues you, you can act today. These mowers are available everywhere, all they need are some forward thinking and innovative superintendents to try them out and make them work for golf.

I think I may have just purchased my last big expensive mower.

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I don't think that the of mower is the the way forward. Too big, too expensive and too complicated.

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