• Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Robotic mowers

Erwin Beltman

Erwin Beltman was the head groundsman for stadium De Kuip in the Netherlands between 2013 and 2022. In that period, the field was voted the best stadium field in the Dutch Eredivisie eight times in a row. These days, he works as a consultant and shares his experiences about achieving good turf pitches on Sportsfields.info. Today he discusses robotic mowers.

As manager of the stadium field at De Kuip Stadium, as well as the training complex of Feyenoord FC, I was never fond of autonomous mowers. Visually inspecting the field is important for a groundsman to know what is happening and what action should be taken in order to further improve it. The manual cutting of the grass provides one with a perfect opportunity to inspect the field. Grass requires dedicated attention, especially when the field is used by the national teams. That requires attention per square centimetre instead of covering as much distance as possible per minute.

I still apply that principle. That is partly the reason why SJC FC, despite playing in the amateur league, increasingly hosts training sessions and matches of national teams. Come summer, the English national ladies team use the site to prepare for their next European campaign.

Nevertheless, I am well aware that few clubs, municipalities or golf courses can afford spending so much time or resources on tending the field. That is why the invitation to the Husqvarna Turf Day at the end of April offered me a great opportunity to familiarize myself with the latest autonomous mower trends.

Multiple choices

A groundsman strives for a robust grass surface with good coverage. This contributes to the game and limits the possibilities for diseases or pests to settle in. The regular cutting of grass will help achieve such a surface. It serves the grass when only the top is cut regularly. Here, the grass is tenderest and most vulnerable to damage from, for example, insufficiently sharp knives. It is precisely this sort of damage that gives diseases or pests a chance to settle in. Depending on the weather conditions and the chosen fertilization, this may mean that the grass needs to be cut two to three times a week.

At present, autonomous mowers can mow up to 50,000 m2. Which robot is most suitable for the location in question depends largely on the frequency with which you want the grass cut, the time the robot has to cover the field, the density of the grass and the cutting height to which you want to grass to be trimmed.

More sustainable

Autonomous mowers themselves, and working with them, require attention and dedication. For example, it is important that a field is free of obstacles so that the robot can operate undisturbed. The robots are equipped with sensors that help avoid collisions or immediately switch off the rotating blades that cut the grass when the unit is lifted. But something as small as a golf ball or the net of a goal is not always observed. In these instances, the robot will continue driving over it, and can become entangled. Operators will be alerted by means of a text message. They will be required to physically assess the situation and restart the robot once cleared.

According to Husqvarna, the total cost of ownership of an autonomous mower is about 30% cheaper compared to cutting the grass manually, as the activity no longer requires the continuous presence of a labourer.

Other advantages touted are the low amount of noise it produces, the reduced need for maintenance (other than regular changing of the blades) and the low carbon footprint. The company claims that cutting two football fields 30 weeks a year for 20 years with one of the Husqvarna robotic mowers will result in a CO2 footprint of 297kg per season. The use of a diesel-powered front mower creates 1770 kg of CO2 per season, they claimed.

Greater flexibility

What struck me most is how flexible robotic lawn mowers have become. The first models were not following a mowing script. However, the latest generation can also mow in patterns, in the case of Husqvarna, even four different patterns. This allows a club to give its field(s) its own identity.

The robots can be controlled remotely by means of an app on a smartphone or tablet. The app helps monitor progress but can also be used, for example, to adjust the cutting height. In theory, the continuous presence of a labourer is no longer necessary. I say “in theory” because I remain of the opinion that the reality is different. Not only will the quality of the grass have to be monitored, we also need to have an idea of local developments. For example, in some Belgian municipalities, the use of mowing robots is prohibited or limited to time periods, due to the presence of small mammals that move across the sports fields (at night). Apps will not (yet) respond to this.

Exciting future

The day finished off with a look into the future. Although the speaker didn’t really want to show everything Husqvarna has up its sleeve, he made it clear that in the future, it will mainly be about ease of installation, problem-free use, new opportunities and data-driven turf management. In the case of the latter, he predicts that the mowers will communicate and collaborate more with marking robots, automatic irrigation, soil sensors, grass growth lights and external databases. The robots will also become even smarter through artificial intelligence, and continually improve themselves. But instead of the robots working together with robots from all kinds of other builders and suppliers, Husqvarna envisions a future in which it can carry out the various activities by means of its own tool carrier.

To what extent this will become reality remains to be seen. It became clear that we are on the eve of a revolution in grass management.

Rapid developments

Husqvarna is certainly not the only one offering autonomous grass-cutting robots for sports fields or golf courses. Belrobotics and Kress, to name a couple, are also very active. Each has its own unique features and benefits. What the Husqvarna Turf Day made clear to me is that developments are moving very quickly. Since the introduction of their first robotic mower in 1995, Husqvarna has installed 4 million units. This includes installations at private properties. What is more remarkable is that they are now offering their fourth generation. This shows once again how quickly technology improves and evolves – all the more reason to continue to closely monitor and consider these developments. Although I remain of the opinion that good turf requires the proactive involvement of a human, robots can take over a lot of repetitive and demanding work, especially when it concerns large surfaces. Anyone who uses that freed-up time wisely can only benefit.

Greater flexibility

What struck me most is how flexible robotic lawn mowers have become. The first models were not following a mowing script. However, the latest generation can also mow in patterns, in the case of Husqvarna, even four different patterns. This allows a club to give its field(s) its own identity.

The robots can be controlled remotely by means of an app on a smartphone or tablet. The app helps monitor progress but can also be used, for example, to adjust the cutting height. In theory, the continuous presence of a labourer is no longer necessary. I say “in theory” because I remain of the opinion that the reality is different. Not only will the quality of the grass have to be monitored, we also need to have an idea of local developments. For example, in some Belgian municipalities, the use of mowing robots is prohibited or limited to time periods, due to the presence of small mammals that move across the sports fields (at night). Apps will not (yet) respond to this.

Exciting future

The day finished off with a look into the future. Although the speaker didn’t really want to show everything Husqvarna has up its sleeve, he made it clear that in the future, it will mainly be about ease of installation, problem-free use, new opportunities and data-driven turf management. In the case of the latter, he predicts that the mowers will communicate and collaborate more with marking robots, automatic irrigation, soil sensors, grass growth lights and external databases. The robots will also become even smarter through artificial intelligence, and continually improve themselves. But instead of the robots working together with robots from all kinds of other builders and suppliers, Husqvarna envisions a future in which it can carry out the various activities by means of its own tool carrier.

To what extent this will become reality remains to be seen. It became clear that we are on the eve of a revolution in grass management.

Rapid developments

Husqvarna is certainly not the only one offering autonomous grass-cutting robots for sports fields or golf courses. Belrobotics and Kress, to name a couple, are also very active. Each has its own unique features and benefits. What the Husqvarna Turf Day made clear to me is that developments are moving very quickly. Since the introduction of their first robotic mower in 1995, Husqvarna has installed 4 million units. This includes installations at private properties. What is more remarkable is that they are now offering their fourth generation. This shows once again how quickly technology improves and evolves – all the more reason to continue to closely monitor and consider these developments. Although I remain of the opinion that good turf requires the proactive involvement of a human, robots can take over a lot of repetitive and demanding work, especially when it concerns large surfaces. Anyone who uses that freed-up time wisely can only benefit.

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