Apr 28, 2024 - Technology

Building a better (robot) lawn mower

Illustration of a robot head shape cut into grass

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Buzzy new robotic lawn mowers let you use a smartphone app to boss them around, no perimeter wires required.

Why it matters: The perfectly coiffed green lawn that these mowers enable is a joyous symbol of the American dream — and a villainous lightning rod for environmental criticism.

Driving the news: The latest wave of autonomous mowers is quieter, battery-powered and gentler on your grass.

  • They're also easier to set up and operate: You don't have to install a perimeter wire to keep them inside your property lines.
  • They mow your lawn 24/7, constantly snipping the grass blade tips and leaving dainty cuttings behind as fertilizer.
  • But they're expensive, prompting some neighbors to team up and share them for round-the-clock community mowing.

What they're saying: Once they're set up, "these machines run relatively autonomously," says Chris Price of Husqvarna, the leading manufacturer of autonomous mowers.

  • "They go out, they cut the grass, they dock in a charger, and then they go back out again, depending on when you want them to run," Price, engineering manager for robotics at Husqvarna, tells Axios.
  • "The machine is totally weatherproof, waterproof," Price adds. "It can live outside. We want to reduce all the barriers to you having to do any work to cut your grass."
A Husqvarna lawn mower in a demonstration area at a trade show.
Husqvarna showed off one of its mowers at SXSW in Austin in 2022. Photo: Hutton Supancic/Getty Images for SXSW

Where it stands: Last year, Husqvarna introduced the first mower for the U.S. residential market that doesn't require boundary wires, which are arduous to install and easily broken.

  • The $5,900 Automower 450XH uses a trademarked technology called EPOS (Exact Positioning Operating System) to navigate your yard.
  • It's been "very well received," particularly for its "ability to run in parallel lines," says Scott Porteous, Husqvarna's product manager for robotics.

"The typical way that robotic lawn mowers used to operate is kind of like your Roomba, where it would just sort of bounce around your yard at random," Porteous says.

  • With EPOS, "we can run it in systematic fashions, meaning we can make those nice pretty stripes that your landscapers leave behind after they get done cutting your grass — but you get it every day."

Other manufacturers are also getting into the no-boundary-wires game.

Reality check: The four-figure price tags on these mowers — and the fact that they don't observe property lines — means that teaming up with your neighbors to share one might make sense, Amanda Blum writes in Lifehacker.

  • "I've been amazed at the traffic generated by using my Mammotion Luba 2," which costs $2,900 on Amazon.
  • "People stop to watch it work, they bring their kids by, and cars have slowed down, backed up and then pulled over to observe," Blum writes.
  • "But the best outcome I discovered by using a robot lawn mower is this: If you can share your robot lawn mower with your closest neighbors, what was a good value becomes a great one."

🍀 Zoom out: The No-Mow May movement, which has people keeping their mowers in the garage until June to give bees and other pollinators time to smell the wildflowers, has given way to pushback.

  • Detractors don't like their neighbors' unkempt yards — and environmentalists question the efficacy of the approach.

It's all part of the ongoing "lawn wars" among neighbors who favor different levels of grooming.

  • All-natural types go for full "rewilding" (ripping out turf to put in native plants).
  • Aesthetic perfectionists aim for the manicure level of a pro golf course.

Between the (neatly mown) lines: Executives at Husqvarna, a Swedish company, see big differences between American and European lawn care attitudes.

  • "It's a bit more of a cultural phenomenon" to have a great lawn in the U.S., Price says.
  • Americans want to be more "hands on" in programming their robot mowers and micromanaging the mow, he adds.

"U.S. customers don't care just that the grass is getting mowed, they don't care that they don't have to do it — they want a specific experience," Price says.

  • "They want to be able to interact with this machine, to be present without doing the labor."
A robot lawn mower is shown in a field of grass.
The Verdie robot from Electric Sheep can handle edging and trimming. Photo courtesy of Electric Sheep

What's next: A San Francisco company called Electric Sheep is building what it says is the first commercial landscaping system based entirely on autonomous robots.

  • The company uses a robot called RAM for mowing and one called Verdie for edging and trimming lawns and bushes and blowing leaves. (See a video of both in action.)
  • Verdie and RAM don't require an engineer on-site. "They can just be shipped to a campus, [homeowners association] or park and begin tasks alongside the crew," the company says in a press release.

"They're not restricted to large open areas because they're smaller and they can reason for themselves," Nag Murty, CEO and co-founder of Electric Sheep, tells Axios.

  • As a result, "we're able to deploy in all manner of complex terrains — if there are trees in the middle of a lawn, or trampolines or flower beds, or whatever else."

The bottom line: The market for such mowers is in its infancy, but expect them to become as ubiquitous as the Roomba and the Ring doorbell.

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