When it comes to robot lawnmowers, the United States is behind several other countries including Germany, Sweden, and England. That could be because Americans tend to have much larger yards, or because there’s something relaxing about riding a John Deere tractor, especially during the spring and fall. But 2018 is shaping up to be the year of the robot mower in the U.S., thanks in part to the Husqvarna Group’s Automower line.
While the easiest way to explain what a robot lawnmower does is to say it’s like a Roomba for your grass, Husqvarna’s Automowers actually pre-date robot vacuum cleaner technology. The first Automower rolled off the Swedish assembly line back in 1998 after several years of development as a solar-powered mower. The concept was dreamed up in the early ‘90s, while iRobot’s Roomba debuted in 2002.
The robot lawnmower was slow to take off in the early part of that first decade, Husqvarna Group president Sascha Menges told Digital Trends, but by 2005 the concept began to take hold in several European countries, most notably Sweden. As new technology allowed for prices to come down, sales increased. Husqvarna celebrated one million units sold in January 2017, the majority of which are in Europe. Now, the company wants to grow its North American business.
Roomba-ing your lawn
Unlike a traditional tractor or push mower, the concept for the robot mower isn’t to cut the entire yard all at once like you might do on a Saturday morning. Instead, the robot takes 48 hours of day and night cutting — with built-in breaks for charging — for an entire lawn to be cut the first time. Once the desired grass height has been achieved, the automower uses razor blades to shave millimeters of grass daily. This acts as a composter and fertilizer, which in turn helps the lawn look greener and healthier without any grass clumps or weeds. In theory, your lawn will always look the same – like a golf course – because the robot is always cutting it in random patterns to eliminate tracks. It even works in the rain, which is something traditional mowers can’t do.
Installed underground barrier lines guide the auto mower on where to go and is used to keep it away from trees, foliage, driveways and other obstacles. There’s also a smart guide wire that offers the most efficient pathway back to the charger. The charger plugs into electricity, allowing the mower to juice up when it’s not in use. It takes approximately 60 minutes for a full charge.
The automower connects to your smartphone, allowing you to see where it is at any time.
Husqvarna has a line of six Automowers, which range in price from $1,500 for a quarter acre cutting capacity to $3,500 for a full acre. That puts these robots in the same price range as ride-on motors, although the company touts the savings in gas, fertilizer and weed-killing sprays as good reasons to invest in a robo mower instead. They’re also extremely quiet (only 56 decibels), which means you won’t ever hear the robot doing its job, and it’ll make those weekends at home a lot more peaceful.
According to Glen Instone, vice president of sales and service at Husqvarna Group, the global lawnmower business is currently around $8.6 billion, with ride-on devices making up 60 percent of those sales. Gas and electric push mowers fall into second, and robot mowers account for just six percent of sales. Husqvarna executives think that that will change, especially as prices come down over the coming years and more bells and whistles like voice technology is added.
“Alexa, Cut the Grass”
Husqvarna is targeting the American smart home audience with Automowers that will communicate with Amazon Alexa beginning in September of this year. Petra Sundstrom, director of idea and innovation management at Husqvarna Group, said the goal is to expand to other voice technology like Google Assistant afterward.
“Over the next three years, voice will fit into the way we communicate with more machines,” Sundstrom told Digital Trends. “According to ABi Research, global smart living is expected to grow from $41.1 billion in 2017 to $125.3 billion in 2022. And voice control is the land grab.”
Sundstrom said that Husqvarna automower owners will allow the user to communicate with their devices from both the inside and outside of the home. For example, Amazon Alexa will be able to update you on the robot mower’s schedule, and you will be able to ask the mower to start or stop at any time via Alexa.
Customers with an Amazon Echo device will be able to communicate with the Automower with commands like “start,” “stop,” and “park,” as well as get updates on things like how much grass it has mowed that day.
“We’re developing internal artificial intelligence to allow users to name their mower and speak directly to it without asking Alexa,” Sundstrom said. “So far our experiment works now in simple form, but it behaves like a three-year-old where you have to be firm and it doesn’t always listen.”
A potential use case for these smart connected outdoor robots is being able to use the camera technology built into the robots to show real-time updates from your lawn – even while you’re away on vacation and checking in via your smartphone.
Sundstrom sees other potential for the smart mower that goes well beyond manicuring your lawn. The device could also serve as a video watchdog, an outside Wi-Fi hub for any devices outside of a the house, as a way to record and keep track of how your roses and other plants are growing, or to inspect and manage the watering system.
Flying Drone Mowers
Automowers are kept within boundaries by smart wires, which are laid underground by dealers that create a barrier for the robots. It’s the same concept as the electric dog fence. Setting up the boundaries takes about a half-day to set up, and can add a couple hundred dollars to the price of your Automower. But in the future, Sundstrom sees drone technology as a way to allow for aerial reconnaissance of a yard, eliminating the ground borders. Using sensors, flying drones can speak to a fleet of small robot mowers that can power through a yard in record time.
While currently only in concept form, the Husqvarna Solea is one way that large parks, football or soccer fields and other open spaces could be maintained. The concept video even shows rooftop lawns being mowed by these flying mowers.
“This Solea concept is as far as we go conceptually when we don’t have a prototype, but we’re already extracting characteristics like flying drones and robots working together,” Stefan Grufman, R&D manager at Husqvarna Group, told Digital Trends.
Issues with flying robot lawn mowers include the lack of battery power and powerful enough AI, although other industries such as autonomous vehicles are helping to push these things forward.
Regardless of current challenges, Husqvarna thinks that the future of mowing our lawns eventually won’t require us to do much more than tap a couple buttons on our smart phones.
“Thirty years from now our grandchildren will ask us if we really mowed our lawns,” Instone said.