#14- Robot Lawn Mowers - Pros and Cons - Will they replace humans in the near future?

Over the past few years robot lawn mowers have popped onto the scene. They are getting better and smarter each year. Should you fire your crew and go grab some of these? Will they replace humans in the near future? How effective are they? What do they cost? All this and more....


Hey, hey. Hope everyone's doing well out there. Welcome back to another episode of EcoLawn Science. Today I want to talk about something that I've been fascinated with over the last, I guess the last year. And that is robots. 

I went to a conference and we talked about the future of technology in the lawn care industry specifically, but also have gone to some other things since and just looked at the future of bots in all industries and can start seeing the writing on the wall, see what's happening. I could start, you know, you can, once you learn what they're capable of, you can see what kind of jobs won't be around, and you can kind of plan for it. I like the idea. I am not afraid of bots. I think they're coming. They're here and so we need to embrace them and understand them so we can figure out how to best utilize them in our lives. Otherwise, we'll probably get run out of business. You know, there's gonna be some level of automation and bots in your business in the next few years. 

I got fascinated with bots and then for Christmas my mother-in-law got me one of those Roombas, the bot that runs around your house and vacuums. And, um, I think it's a Shark brand and it's, it’s phenomenal. I just, I'm fascinated with it. I had a great Christmas, but that was probably the thing I was just freaking out about just cause I've been so into bots lately. And, you know, pulled it out, put the batteries in, and within a few minutes, not even, within two minutes that thing was ready to go and we did a test run, and it's incredible. You know, we have two little kids at home, so we're always sweeping the floors because they're always making a mess. We have a lot of visitors, and so we're sweeping one, at least one to two times a day, and we've had it now for a few weeks, and basically all we do at night is we pick everything off the floor, put it on the couch, and let that bought run around the whole downstairs, and it's awesome. I wake up, my floors are clean, but I love my experience with my little robot. I call him Robi, um, and love watching him clean, and I'm just sitting there doing something else, and I think it's exciting and it's really cool. 

So anyway, so let's talk about lawn care, let’s talk about bots and lawn care. So you may or may not have seen: we now have bots, little, like our Roombas, that can go ahead and mow the lawn for you. It's a little complicated, and there's a couple things that I think they still need to create solutions for. But to me it's fascinating and exciting technology. They've been selling them. They've sold over a million of these robots in Europe over the past decade. And so now they're finally hitting the states on a larger scale, and you can get them all over. You can get them, homeowners can go buy them, you know, they start as low as 1500 bucks, and they could go up as high as, I've seen one for 4 or 5 thousand dollars. 

Um, and even more interesting is there’s companies now popping up around America that literally purchased the bots, and they employ them. So imagine your landscaper, but instead of the two or three guys that show up to cut the grass, he just drops off a little robot. And that's happening. So I want to dig into that a little bit because I didn't quite understand it, and share with you what I've learned. So they are limited, these bots, so they can mow the grass, but they can't weed wack, they can't edge, and obviously they can't blow off the mess. So there's a little bit of limited–but what's really neat about them is they just work all the time. So imagine your vacuum robot at home, my Robi, it goes around, and when it's tired, it backs itself up and it docks and it recharges and then it goes back out. 

And that's essentially how these lawn robots are working, but what’s kind of, so what happens is you can call the company to come out. So let's say you're gonna hire a company, a lawn company that uses robots. And so the first visit, they show up and they'd install some type of fencing. It's like a perimeter. It's obviously not a fence, but some wiring that kind of tells the bot where not to go. And there's a little bit of work on the install, and sometimes there can be a price, they may charge you a price extra for the install. 

And then what happens is you're essentially leasing that bot from them each month. So some companies may say, okay, it's 100 bucks a month throughout the growing season, so let's say 7 months. So 700 bucks, I'm gonna set it up, I'm going to, you know, set the perimeter fencing. I'm gonna teach it what it needs means to do. And this thing is gonna be on your property all 7 months of the year working rain or shine. 

And here's some really cool things about the bots: obviously, they're solar. A lot of them are solar powered, so that's just, you know, talk about eco-friendly. That's next level. Even if you have a lawn service, and we get rainy days, they’re behind. With the bots, they can actually cut in a light rain because they're not heavy, they're very light. And so they don't track up, they don't put tracks in your grass like a big mower. They don't damage it, and they can, I think if it's pouring rain, they may, they may go back and dock, but a lighter, medium rain they could still work. 

Because they're out there all the time, they're hardly cutting a lot of inches, so the lawn stays, whatever you program it–let's say you program at two-and-a-half, three inches somewhere in there, a healthy turfgrass length–and the lawn literally stays there, once it gets going, all year. I mean, you don't have to, you know, if your guys come once a week, sometimes for me, by the sixth day my lawn needs to be cut. And so this, it looks perfect all year. They're cutting off little pieces at a time, and so there's no, it just drops the clippings back into the lawn without causing any damage, because it's not like it's two inches of clipping. It might be an eighth of an inch because it's there every day. And so it's cool. So you're recycling the nutrients from the grass clippings without causing a massive thatch buildup. 

And they're incredible little bots. And so one of the cool things is so when you get it, if you hire a company, that's, that's providing the service because you might think, I'll just go by my own. While the company is generally gonna fully ensure that robot, so if somebody steals it, if it breaks, you don't have to worry about it. They put GPS tracking devices on each bot, and so they, to the point where they can actually be notified if a bot leaves your property and it's automatically disabled.

They’re safe for pets and kids, that's a big question. What happens is, it’s got a very sensitive bumper on it. As soon as it taps anything it just stops. So one of the complicated things about it is if you have a gate, you know the bot can’t normally go from front to back lawn. But some companies I've seen have designed their own little patent, like a robot door, and basically it's like, it's a really cool little fence. I haven't seen one in person, but I've researched it a bit. It's a little fence, like, picture a doggy door, but the robot can go under. But then, as soon as it goes under it like locks, so the pets can't get out, the kids are safe, no one's going to get out, but the bot can go back and forth. 

Here's some cool things: it's very quiet. So typical landscaping or lawn mowing is limited to the day hours. You don’t want to be out there 6 a.m. or 7p.m. annoying all your neighbors. These bots are so quiet they can run throughout the night. So really cool technology there. 

As far as, you know, one of the big things I've seen people ask are what about if I have leaves or fallen trees. Actually, these little bots do a great job, some of them, of mulching up small sticks and leaves and moving them out of their way. So if there is a heavy, if you had a big storm and big branches came down, then yeah, you’d either need to hire someone to remove them or you would need to move the big ones. But the little things you don't even have to worry about. 

As far as, yeah, we talked a little bit about blade length. It can cut anywhere from 1 1/4 to 3 1/2 inches, which is awesome. I always recommend a higher, people like to cut their lawns too short–causes a lot of issues. 

So most of the bots that I've seen, on a commercial level, are only able to cut up to about half an acre of grass. So if you've got a four acre property, you're gonna need more than one of these bots, and you're going to set up different, different stations. 

And something else that I thought was pretty cool is you can actually program them at a certain time. So if you're running your sprinklers, if you got your pets out certain times, you could just have these bots work around it. So it's pretty cool. 

So I think some of the benefits to hiring a company is you know, they insure them, um, they have these custom doors, they maintain them because, you're like starting at 1500 for a bot, plus the setup. And so there's a little bit of an advantage on both sides. Now here's the tricky part, is if you hire a company, it's only gonna mow the grass. So if you want your sidewalks and edges trimmed and weed wacked, it can't do that. So what I've seen is the companies that are doing this, they'll deploy their bots and they leave the bot on your property, but they might come over once every other week or every 10 days, and they might edge out the property and do the weed wacking. 

So there's some of the pros and cons of the bots, and I believe the technology is just gonna keep improving, especially over the next three or four years. You know, one of the biggest issues with mowing lawns is, is to have the staff, to have the team and to get the people that will show up on time, will work hard, make it look great. You know, by the time you get into payroll, by the time you get into work visas and all these things, it's really costly. Your margins are shrinking because of your overhead in the labor field. And so, I think with the bots, in my mind, it's an up front cost. So you might spend two grand the first year, or fifteen hundred to two grand depending on the bot, the first year and so you're gonna break even. But then the next year, once that bot is paid for, think about that, if you get 10 years out of it, it's literally like having an employee for 10 years for free, in some sense. And so I really like that concept, especially as labor is getting harder and harder to find. I think that's great. I think, you know, obviously you could scale down your business. 

So here's the tricky thing if you have one bot per property. So let's say you have 100 properties that you mow on a weekly basis. You gotta buy 100 bots. So you're gonna be in that one 100-plus thousand dollars up front. But again, if you have the capital to take that kind of hit, knowing that the second year those bots are paid off and you've got 100 employees really that are out there working and all you're doing is maintaining them, that's a pretty cool little business model. And, and then you just send one, you know, you have a maybe a truck or two that has a guy in it with a weed wacker and an edger, and then you just send those trucks out and they could go through and hit, just because they're doing that, they could probably hit 30, 40, 50 properties a day. So you do the math. I mean, it's really cool, and I think it's exciting. 

Um, there is, one of the leaders in this, in the bot mowing technology is a company called Robin Autopilot, and they're actually a franchise. They're looking for people that want to get into it and start their own companies. I've looked into some of their franchise fees, into what they recommend for insurance, investments, and usually you're gonna come in somewhere around 80-100,000 to really get in. There’s about a $30,000 franchise fee. There's an initial robot package. You know you have to have basic equipment, initial advertising and marketing just your normal business costs. But again, once you get this in and rolling, think about that. If you have 500 bots, think about how many lawns, I mean, think about how you could maintain 500 lawns, really with a small crew, and the best part is those lawns always stay at the perfect length all year. So think about how happy your customer will be. For the homeowners, if you're a DIY kind of person and you want to save money in the long term, you could go by the nice commercial bot. You could spend a little more, three grand, you know, it’s a little more extra to program it. But if you're not afraid of maintaining the bot, if you're not afraid of doing the weed wacking, edging yourself, think about that. You could, you could spend three grand and never have to mow your lawn again as long as the length of the bots. So hopefully that's 5,8,10 years. 

So either side, I think there's a place for this. I think like anything you know, there's still some human interaction that has to happen. We have to, humans have to set it up, they have to maintain them, they have to bring them in for the winter. But overall, I think it's a great tool to have, and I think you could build a great business. And I'm actually very excited about this technology. I hope, I know it's a little bit, it's quite a disrupter. I have a lot of friends in the lawn mowing industry and so I will be anxious and watching to see if they embrace it, if they fight it, and where this goes, and in fact I'll probably have some of them on the show to talk more about it from, from an actual lawn mowing company’s perspective. 

So anyway, there you have it. Exciting tech future is here. Embrace it  or run from it, that's up to you. But I think this is a great spot. I think these bots could play a great role in helping us, either on the business side but also on the homeowner side, just automate and make life simpler. Hope you guys have gotten something out of this. I hope you've enjoyed it. Have a great day and I see you on the next show.

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