What We Learned About Autonomous Commercial Mowing in 2021

Derek Haynes

One by one, the audience who had gathered to watch a Greenzie-equipped mower autonomously cut a field walked away. Normally, I’m deflated when people walk away from a demo. In this case, I couldn’t have been happier. It is boring watching a mower cut stripes on a field. It shouldn’t be exciting. This is why we exist: mowing a large field is a monotonous and tiring job that landscapers cannot fill.

We’re proud of how quickly we’ve moved from exciting concept to boring. In fact, it’s been just two years since we mounted a laptop, cameras, and other sensors onto a TurtleBot in an indoor office:

Greenzie circa 2019

Fast-forward to 2021:

Last year, our pilot program customers used Greenzie for over 500 autonomous hours. Are we ready to declare commercial autonomous mowing a solved problem? In some situations: yes. In others? No. We faced our share of challenges in 2021. Here’s a look at what we’ve learned and how that’s shaping our product vision in 2022.

1. Simulation isn't great for testing reliability

Twitter-verse isn’t always happy with Greenzie’s preference for operating robots in the real world versus a simulated one. I think it's a case of missing context.

Greenzie-equipped mowers are operated in harsh outdoor environments and are frequently transported on rough roads. In our pilot program, most of the significant issues we faced were not software problems: they were hardware/mechanical/systems incidents that were exposed as our system entered the real world commercial landscaping environment. Blown fuses, button covers falling off due to wear, and worn wheel encoders are difficult to surface in a simulation environment. All of these can cause downtime, which hurts the productivity of our customers.

All of those 500+ hours of customer-led autonomous mowing were critical for identifying which components we needed to upgrade for our much larger production run in 2022.

2. Autonomous mowing needs a bit of site planning

In January 2016, Elon Musk famously promised that Tesla’s autonomous driving capabilities would be “significantly better” than humans by 2018-19. As of late 2021, Tesla appears a ways from that milestone. Similarly, many commercial autonomous mowing startups enjoy sharing short video snippets of robots navigating complex terrain but remain hesitant to deliver mowers to customers.

Rather than wait for perfection on complex terrain, we've opted to deliver Greenzie-equipped mowers now to autonomously mow relatively flat terrain (think athletic fields and greenspaces and not highway medians or steep slopes). These areas are extremely time-consuming to mow. Our customers are facing a dire labor shortage, and cutting these large, repetitive, time-consuming areas makes an immediate dent in their labor problems. Why keep these productivity savings out of customer hands?

This does require some planning to ensure Greenzie is used on sites that best maximize our customer’s ROI. We're increasing our usage of software-based site planning tools to help our customers optimize their autonomous mowing programs.

3. A rapid evolution of sensors will dramatically expand autonomous mowing terrain

From lidar to cameras to localization, the sensors Greenzie requires to mow complex terrain are evolving quickly. One of the reasons we’ve focused on broad, open sites is that mowing complex areas with an autonomous system can require band-aided, complex software workarounds and heuristics to handle the scenarios where current sensors fail. This has a negative impact on safety, is likely to result in inconsistent behavior, and much of the code and time spent on this could be thrown away in a year or two as sensor quality improves.

In 2022, we’re testing the next generation of sensors that will allow Greenzie-equipped mowers to tackle more complex sites. We're confident the dramatic gains in sensor capabalities combined with a systematic approach to growing site coverage (see site planning above) will provide even more ROI to our customers.

2022: mass production and an eye to the future

This will be an exciting and challenging year for us: we’ll be delivering our first set of pre-ordered Robotic-Ready™ lawn mowers and laying the groundwork for mowing more complex terrain in 2023. If you are a landscaper interested in reducing labor costs, tell your local dealer you want a mower with Greenzie Autonomous Mowing. Or, are you interested in joining our mission to free humans from repetitive labor? Check out Greenze’s open job positions.