Autonomous mowers get smarter and safer Email
Written by Colorado Green NOW   
Tuesday, February 22, 2022 02:00 AM

Colorado Green Now

Scythe Robotics, Longmont, founded in 2018 by Jack Morrison, Isaac Roberts and Davis Foster, is dedicated to providing a sustainable solution to a huge challenge facing the landscape industry. The company’s mowers—aka robots—address workforce issues such as the chronic labor shortage while avoiding contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Scythe’s founders see autonomous mowers reducing the need for humans to operate a mower on landscape maintenance projects—a relatively low-skill task—and free them up for more skilled maintenance tasks that can be performed while the robots are mowing. Landscape maintenance projects can be done in less time with less noise, lower emissions and fewer crew members—less labor.

Autonomous mowing gets more attention
Three years after Scythe caught the attention of ALCC and other members with their ELITE Award submission for Innovation, the company has grown to over 30 employees and wanted to add 10 more by the end of 2021. Scythe announced in June 2021 that the company raised over $18.5 million in venture capital funding allowing it grow and continue to improve the product. Colorado Green spoke with Billy Otteman, marketing director at Scythe.

Otteman explained that even though Scythe is still doing testing and making improvements they have “paying customers in Longmont, Vero Beach, FL and Austin, TX using Scythe’s machines.” Those in Texas and Florida have the advantage of a yearlong landscape season, meaning Scythe can be testing and improving mowers even during Colorado’s offseason. With previous prototypes retired, Scythe currently has six autonomous mowers in the field and is about to deploy several more. The company also kicked off production of its next generation mower, which is the model they will scale with as they begin rolling out more robots to customers in the year ahead.

Challenge of off-road autonomous robots
One of the greatest challenges of creating safe, off-road autonomous machines, such as Scythe’s mower, is the terrain and obstacles are not constant or consistent. There could be a puddle, or dog, person, bicycle or another object at one moment that’s not there the next. The terrain or the thickness of the grass could change. Or one wheel might be on concrete while others are on grass. It's easy to see the complexity involved with machine learning and safe operation as the robots are tested with current customers.

And aside from their ‘brain,’ these machines need brawn. The hardware must be durable enough to withstand rugged environments and tough terrain as well as a range of weather conditions, from the blazing hot sun to a rainstorm. Since battery-powered mowers have far fewer moving parts compared to gas-powered mowers, they should last much longer. Scythe's mowers are also self-testing and can detect when service is needed.

Scythe robots keep getting smarter
So how did they get so smart? These autonomous mowers are decked-out with eight high dynamic range cameras—one stereo pair on each side—and 12 ultrasonic sensors and wheel encoders, all of which constantly generate data. The ultrasonic sensors backup the visual sensors—cameras—and the information is processed by a small onboard supercomputer. Sensing of the surroundings and the environment happens in real time so the mower, which can travel up to 8 mph, can stop quickly if it detects obstacles.

Scythe programmers analyze the data collected by the machines and make changes that improve the robot’s ability to navigate a property on its own. Otteman says that some of the testing in Longmont includes setting up obstacle courses to help “teach” the robots about such objects. “Based on current operations,” says Otteman, “To our knowledge, Scythe already has the largest labeled data set of off-road images there is.”

“In the future, camera images will be able to capture elements such as broken sprinkler head, or a shrub that needs pruning, and flag the landscape maintenance team that can investigate and talk to the customer,” Otteman says. “The mowers can also detect areas of turf that are too wet or too dry and flag that they need attention.” “What’s going on here is human/machine collaboration using advanced technology to help landscape crews become more productive and efficient,” Otteman says. “We use the information the robots gather to make the technology smarter, which then multiplies the amount of work landscape contractors can do, helping them to grow their businesses.”

Pay per acre
Scythe will offer the mowers on a usage-based rental, meaning customers will pay according to the number of acres they mow. Scythe is responsible for maintenance and repairs, and the customer will always have the latest software updates. “By leasing the mowers like this, we align our incentives with our customers’” says Otteman. “We want the mowers to be as durable and productive as possible to increase mow time, which is what customers want from their mowers. Plus, they don’t need to own more equipment.”

What’s next?
“Customers and the market are eager for the product even though they have to wait,” Otteman states. “We’ll use the interest and signups at the GIE [in 2021]to plan production for 2023 and beyond. 

Log in to to read the full article in Colorado Green magazine, November/December 2021 issue.

2024 ALCC Platinum Sponsors