Backyard Bots

Hate to cut your lawn? NatureWorks’ fleet of autonomous mowers has you covered.

Written by Lisa Cavanaugh| Photos courtesy of NatureWorks Landscape Services, Inc.

Only about 2 feet long and 1.5 feet wide, autonomous mowers methodically maneuver their way across lawns like tiny, slow-moving race cars, guided by sensors and contained by a perimeter wire.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends more than 70 hours a year caring for their lawn, so an apparatus that cuts lawns much like a Roomba vacuums floors—all by itself—holds enormous appeal. An early robotic lawnmower, the MowBot, was patented in 1969, and power-tool companies began widely selling autonomous lawn-care models in the 2000s. The future of lawn care, it seems, clearly includes sitting back and letting machines do the work.

Matthew Gramer, president of NatureWorks Landscape Services, based in Walpole, Massachusetts, first tested autonomous mowers a couple of years ago, eager to compliment the array of sophisticated equipment he uses servicing high-end properties south of Boston. “We were thrilled with the results, so we began using it for clients [in September 2016],” says Gramer, who co-founded the company in 1995.

NatureWorks, well known for both their environmentally sound lawn care and technological innovation, is the only landscaping company in the area to offer this service. “We are always looking for the best solutions for our clients,” Gramer says. They have more than 15 robotic mowers currently in operation, predominately Husqavarna’s Automower brand.

“It’s pretty amazing how they work,” he says of the approximately 2-foot-long by 1-and-half-foot-wide mowers that methodically maneuver their way across lawns like tiny slow-moving race cars, guided by sensors and contained by a perimeter wire. In traditional mowing, as any lawn owner knows, we cut the grass every week or so, it grows back, possibly getting a bit shaggy, and we start all over again. Controlled by a smartphone application, a robotic mower stays on the property and mows the grass a little bit every day, returning to its charging station when the work is done.

“The autonomous mower runs every day, trimming off small bits of grass, so you never have to let the lawn get high,” says Gramer, who has had a robotic mower running at his own home for three years. “The grass is always mowed, always trimmed 2.5 inches high, always party-ready.”

Two other key benefits are turf health and the amelioration of noise pollution. Using this method, the grass is shaved off a little bit each day and those micro-clippings go back into the ground. “Autonomous mowing can reduce fertilizer use, because nutrients go back into the soil, and weed populations are reduced,” notes Gramer. “This approach supports thick, healthy turf grass.”

Ten percent of NatureWorks’ clients have opted for their lawns to be cut by an autonomous mower.

In addition, autonomous mowers are quiet. “There is a macro-movement to be more green and reduce both noise and pollution in lawn care machinery,” says Gramer, whose company employs low-decibel leaf blowers, battery-powered tree trimmers, and iPads for every service professional. “Innovation has always been in our DNA. We try to look for how tech can make our operation run smoother and give the client a better experience.” To have self-sufficient, battery-powered mowers quietly tending lawns and tucking themselves back into discreetly placed electric charging stations is an ideal solution.

NatureWorks clients definitely agree. One customer from Dover, Massachusetts, raves about the autonomous mowers: “They go about the business of mowing the lawn continuously, all day long, creating virtually no noise and zero pollution. And the lawn is always mowed! What else could you ask for?” Another client in Westwood praises the appearance of his lawn from the robot mowers: “Our lawn is the fullest and thickest it has ever been, and we have fewer weeds. It has never looked better.”

“We’ve had a terrific response, “says Gramer, “and we make it low-risk for our clients to try autonomous mowers. Our deliverable is to maintain lawns, and we let them know we have an alternative way to do just that,” he says. “There’s no extra charge for NatureWorks to utilize autonomous mowers, and nearly everyone has been open to giving it a chance.”

There are certain lawn characteristics that are best suited for robotic mowers. “They need to work in a contiguous lawn area,” says Gramer. “Mowers can’t get through a fenced-in pool area, for example, or up steep hills. And they need to be near a power source.” NatureWorks is using them at about 10 percent of clients’ homes and, while hoping to increase that number, Gramer does recognize some existing limitations. “I wish the technology was more applicable to current landscapes. We have millions of lawns in this country not designed with an auto mower in mind.”

Nevertheless, Gramer will continue to employ autonomous mowers, assessing each lawn to see if it is a candidate for robotics. “NatureWorks is a full-service company with a whole host of lawn care services. Mowing is one of them and we are mowing in a different and, we think, better way.”


 

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