New technology, earning its share of praise, was on display in South Pasadena last Wednesday as team members from Graze Mowers, an independent company out of Santa Monica, showcased a pair of large 60-inch wide battery-operated lawnmowers to an awe-inspired audience.
Missing from the equation, however, was the driver, a usual sight for these kinds of lawn care demonstrations. Instead, with the push of a button the fully autonomous piece of machinery went into action.
“Think of it as a Roomba for the lawn,” said a smiling John Vlay, the CEO of Graze, comparing the mower to the robotic vacuum that powers its way inside a home’s carpet space.
“The next several years are just going to be transformative,” he added, as the latest model in his collection of self-driving mowers was steadily moving over a large swath of grass where baseball games and soccer matches are played in South Pasadena’s Arroyo Park, cutting it evenly along the way. “As a company, we’ve come so far to the point where we’re going to get more mowing under our belt to see what we can do to continuously improve and see what glitches we need to fix.”
If there were any bugs in the system, they were mostly unnoticeable to those on hand taking in the motions of the operator-less mowers, explained Vlay, that are now targeting the commercial landscaping industry to, in part, counter labor shortages and rising wages in the United States.
Among the potential purchasers of the equipment could be the City of South Pasadena as workers from LandCare, the contractor it uses for maintaining all of its parks and properties in town, watched the driverless mower roam about the park. Also viewing the demonstration were local public works employees, city officials and a representative from the neighboring community of Glendale. An official from the University of Southern California (USC) also was among the invited guests.
Hardly stopping there, Vlay said he hopes his fully autonomous lawnmower could someday find its way into Major League Baseball (MLB) parks, in National Football League (NFL) stadiums and onto Professional Golf Association (PGA) courses throughout the country and beyond.
Graze engineers, from the robotics side to electric and mechanical, answered queries, prompting Vlay to add: “The technology has come so far in just the past several years to bring us and autonomous mowing where it is today. It’s an exciting time.”
Vlay assured that Graze Mower wasn’t designed to take away jobs, meaning the person in the usual driver’s seat of the conventional gas-powered found in many cities, or the battery-operated seat mowers used in South Pasadena today. “There’s a term called up-scaling,” the CEO explained. “The person no longer sitting on or pushing a mower can now be trained for higher level tasks and make more money. So, there’s plenty of room for irrigation technicians, integrative pest management, arbor care, and hand pruning. There are so many more skills that a landscaper can learn how to do other than sitting on or pushing a mower, which is really entry level. Now it will allow more people to do a higher level skill at a higher pay.”
Dan Mabe, founder of the American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA), which bills itself as the leader in low impact, low noise land care solutions, added: “It is the future and the future is now,” as he watched the Graze mower move around the field areas. “When you look at this industry five, ten, two decades out, you are going to see a lot of this autonomous technology implemented, and fortunately for us, this technology happens to be electric. There are a lot of benefits to it on so many levels.”
Back in 2016, AGZA recognized South Pasadena as the first Green Zone Certified City in the nation from a lawn maintenance perspective, “meaning all city properties and parks are being maintained with electric equipment.”
Further, Mabe said: “South Pasadena is the clean tech incubator for the grounds maintenance industry nationwide. Now we have this incredible autonomous mower technology being introduced by Graze that is being embraced by the city.”
Mabe attended Wednesday’s demonstration to independently vet the Graze mower, noting: “We’re going to test it for its safety, for its work production rate capability and economic feasibility.”
Members of the Graze Mower team said the newest model on display comes with a longer battery life than earlier versions, allowing it to move throughout its paces for an entire workday. A grass cutting area is determined, explained a Graze employee, through a recording system using a tablet computer after driving the mower around the perimeter or, another way, through Google maps. After the set-up, it’s sent off to complete the task.
“This is part of our continuing effort to explore, assess and hopefully incorporate new, better and cleaner technology,” explained Michael Cacciotti, the city’s mayor pro tem, who also serves on the board for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “Not only do we have the use of complete battery-operated equipment in our parks and city properties, but now we have autonomous equipment on display. The mower, without a driver, is slow, quiet, and gives off no pollution. All you hear is a little buzz. It’s great technology and we as a city, along with LandCare, are looking at this. I have to say, I’m impressed. We’ve got several acres out here and it seems to be doing a great job autonomously cutting the grass. There are no spark plugs, filters, no gasoline, no oil and basically no maintenance. It’s exciting technology. Like autonomous cars, we now have autonomous lawnmowers. Maybe we can incorporate it into our landscape maintenance here in the city.”