Autonomous systems are spreading in agriculture and mining, and companies such as iRobot have been working on consumer lawnmowers, but there is a wide segment of field applications ripe for robotics — commercial landscaping. Graze Mowing today announced a new model of its robotic lawnmower that it said will “increase efficiency and maintenance speed” for midsize to large commercial spaces.
Landscaping services are ubiquitous across the U.S., but there is plenty of room for disruption, according to Santa Monica, Calif.-based Graze. Such services have generated $101.7 billion in revenue in 2020, while maintenance and general services have been projected to range between 40% and 60% of the overall landscaping service industry in the U.S. However, tight profit margins, labor constraints, and environmental concerns have led to few attempts to innovate and capitalize on an approximate $53 billion market, claimed the startup.
“I’ve been in the landscaping business for 35 years,” said John Vlay, CEO of Graze Mowing. “Gas-powered, manually operated mowers present several problems, including low wages and high turnover, pollution, and safety. In the U.S., 6,000 people are injured every year, ranging from lacerations to amputations. There’s a huge opportunity for improvement.”
“I’ve seen how other industries, such as agriculture and construction, apply data, artificial intelligence, and automation to be more accessible and affordable, and none of that was going to the landscaping industry,” he told The Robot Report. “I asked the owner of a lawnmower shop who said robotic mowers were big in Germany, but he spent half an hour trying to get one to work. It later turned out that the guide wire had been cut. We went to a site, and it was like a bad haircut, with a random pattern rather than aesthetically pleasing parallel lines.”
Graze designs for sustainability
“I realized that if we could create a mower that remembers the perimeter and goes back and forth, it would not just save labor, but it would also guarantee the quality of the cut and satisfy environmental protection requirements,” Vlay said. “Gasoline-powered mowers never had the emissions limits of cars, but the California Air Resources Board has proposed new standards for off-road equipment to reduce air pollution by 90% by 2031. If you buy a 30-in. electric mower, you can get a $6,000 rebate from the local board.”
Although Graze hopes to eventually use solar power for its commercial mowers, it is working with swappable batteries for now. “The panels are still too heavy, and the charge too little, but performance is getting better,” Vlay explained. “Right now, a battery will operate for six to eight hours, depending on the type of grass and slope. Electricity will also save 70% on fuel costs.”
Current commercial fleet operators manage 500 to 1,000 mowers. and replacing a fleet of 1,000 with Graze’s mowers would be equivalent to removing more than 37 million cars from the road in terms of emissions, claimed the startup.
Why has it taken so long for commercial mowers to be automated?
“Toro was very involved about 10 years ago, but the expense and technology at the time were totally different from now,” replied Vlay. “Now is the time for robotics to be more affordable, and a company like Graze can make it happen. John Deere and Toro make a lot of money on gas-powered mowers and have dedicated factories, while it’s easier for a smaller company like us to start new.
“We have the first, best mousetrap out there,” he added. “Once we get out, we’ll get interest from the big companies as strategic partners — it’s more feasible than them trying to invent what we’ve already got.”
Mowers get smarter
Graze’s team includes experts in robotics and commercial landscaping from Jensen Landscaping, Miso Robotics, SpaceX, and Microsoft. It said its initial prototype applied artificial intelligence to create a fully autonomous lawn mower. The new model will add features and incorporate feedback from industry leaders.
“I knew the model with a guide wire wouldn’t work — it was labor-intensive, and you have to do it for every job,” said Vlay. “With Graze, you can use a tablet to trace the perimeter of the lawn or an interior perimeter — planting wells, trees, or ponds — and it will know the field to be mowed.”
The company said that machine learning, computer vision, and sensors will allow its mower to map job sites, plan and execute mowing paths, and avoid obstacles and dangerous inclines. Graze said its new model can learn and apply data via an intuitive user interface, improving lawn care and providing fleet operators opportunities for optimization.
“In the case of obstacles, such as a fallen branch, a dog, or anything larger than a softball, the vision systems will identify it, mow around it, or stop and send an alert through the tablet or phone,” Vlay said. “It’s important for safety, and operators can monitor the robots like vehicles with GPS, as well as how many hours are left on the blade between sharpenings.”
“An operator can back one mower out of the trailer and then go to the next job,” he added. “Once it’s in an area, the robot will mow on its own, and it will know how long a job will take. The person could go to the next job sites and drop off other mowers and then come back to pick it up for another job.”
“We’ve seen a lot of excitement from landscape maintenance company owners and interest from all over the world,” he said. “This includes golf courses and others in Australia, South Africa, and South Korea.”
Pricing and RaaS
Graze’s robotic lawn mower costs $30,000, plus a software-as-a-service (SaaS) fee of $1,000 per month, said Vlay. Even with the SaaS, an operator could get $6,000 back from the resources board and reduce reliance on volatile staff, he said. The company also said operators will be able to maximize revenue by deploying the electric mowers in the evening.
“To make it affordable to landscapers, we’ll have plenty of packages,” he added. “If you count depreciation over five years, at $6,000 per year plus $12,000 of SaaS, $18,000 is well below what you’d pay an operator annually, even at minimum wage, counting insurance, taxes, the machines, and fuel.”
“The No. 14 landscaper in the U.S. has already ordered many robots,” Vlay said. “The recurring revenue [from SaaS or robotics as a service or RaaS] is also a huge business opportunity and is important to investors.”
Graze crowdfunding campaign closes soon
“I’ve met with Martin Buehler and Buck Jordan at Wavemaker Labs, which has been doing great things as an investor and incubator,” Vlay said. “Buehler pointed out that with drone photography, it’s possible to pinpoint usage of fertilizers in precision agriculture. We want to see similar applications of AI for the best landscape quality, care, and service.”
Graze has raised more than $2 million so far out of a $10 million seed round on equity crowdfunding site SeedInvest. In addition, it reported more than $19 million in preorders and commercial contracts.
While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed supply chains and the landscaping industry from March into April, investment responses “came back like gangbusters as things opened up again,” Vlay said. “It didn’t affect us at all for developing software and putting together hardware.”
“Our crowdfunding campaign closes on Sept. 18, and we have over 1,400 individual investors so far,” said Vlay. “We already have enough to send the prototype out to R&D partners this fall for operational modes. We expect to begin manufacturing several months thereafter and introduce it to buyers in early 2021. The more money we can raise, the better and faster we can get launched, and the faster we can scale.”