Robotic mowing - could it work for you?

Jane Carleyin Machinery & Mechanics

Tempted by the convenience of robotic mowing but not sure if it will work for your club or venue? Jane Carley gets some advice on what to consider and the solutions that are available.

Robotic mowers have gained a strong foothold on the consumer market, offering time savings for those who would rather look at their lawn than mow it, along with a bowling green-like finish that makes them want to look at it.

But, there is also increasing interest from the commercial sector in which there are strong arguments for adopting the technology, suggests Luke Bateman of Husqvarna Automower specialist Autocut.

"Robotics can solve a lot of the issues associated with green space management. These include labour availability, and increasingly, finding weather windows to mow that also fit in with sporting schedules or other uses of the turf surface. There's usually no need to halt the mowing cycle for rain, and soil compaction is reduced."

He adds that the fine mulching action and 'little and often' mowing regime can also significantly improve turf quality.

"Once you get used to the idea that a surface cut with a robotic mower will not be striped, you will appreciate the 'carpet-like' appearance that is produced. The very fine clippings return nutrients to the sward and promote healthy growth."

One area where robotic mowing is not yet fully embraced, is in professional sports such as elite football, where clippings not collected on stadium pitches are considered to present an increased risk of disease and poa annua.

"However, trials are being carried out in Europe to assess these perceived negatives, so robotic mowing may gather momentum in the future," Luke comments.

Applications where the technique has shown potential and considerable growth is expected are educational establishments and hospitality venues, where the ability to work silently and at times when the surface is not in use - even at night - is especially useful.

While the mowers can track across tarmac paths to reach multiple grassed areas, a limitation is the suitability for laying a wire around the perimeter of the area to be mown. This could be for purely practical reasons such as the complexity of the area's shape or where the wire may interfere with maintenance tasks such as deep aeration.

However, GPS-controlled mowers can be used in areas that are unsuitable for a perimeter wire, using a reference station for satellite guidance. The operator programmes in a 'virtual boundary' within which the mower will work and if necessary, a specified path from the charging point to the area to be mown, using a smartphone app.

Solar charging is a useful solution for mowers being used on more remote sites

"You could consider several smaller mowers with GPS modules in more complex areas. It's about understanding the capacity of the mower; some layouts will mean that it is only working to 70% of its capacity, but that may be sufficient if the budget for the mower covers the cost of one operator cutting that area."

"Larger and straightforward areas such as a sports club are especially suited to high capacity mowers as they can cover multiple pitches through the night, maximising the amount of time that the facility is available for use."

There is a robotic mower to suit all types of surface, including all-wheel drive versions for steep slopes.

Control of the mowers on a day-to-day basis uses a smartphone app to fine tune performance and monitor weather to check it matches up to forecast data used for mowing schedules.

Accepting that electricity costs have jumped considerably in the past 12 months, he points out that battery-powered mowers are still economical.

"Each mower uses a standard 13amp supply, so for a mid-range model working all year round, the cost would be £80-100/yr."

Large estates or more remote sites can use a dedicated solar-powered charging point, Luke says.

"This gives flexibility where there is no mains power available. The power source needs to be reserved just for the mower, which may return to charge four to 10 times a day depending on the growth cycle of the grass, in order to avoid interference."

Concerns about technical support from a customer base used to performing many 'fixes' in-house on traditional machinery should not be a barrier, he suggests.

Routine maintenance such as swapping blades - three to four times a year is suggested as a minimum - and clearing debris from under the deck is easily carried out by the grounds team.

He adds that many grounds staff are keen to engage with the technology. Control of the mowers on a day-to-day basis uses a smartphone app to fine tune performance and monitor weather to check it matches up to forecast data used for mowing schedules.

"You can schedule start/stops to fit in with a sporting programme, use the app to view machine data such as trigger time, remaining runtime for the battery etc and alter the height or cut from the app. Remote viewing of mower operation eliminates the need to physically go and check the mowers, and frees up time for other jobs."

If the mower is removed, an audible alarm will sound, an alert sent to the operator and GPS tracking activated to follow its location.

"Robotic mowing could provide a solution in many commercial situations," says Luke, "It's just a matter of discovering which is the right machine for your individual requirements."