Splendor in the Grass

Robotic lawn mowers take the effort out of yard maintenance--and save energy


Kyodo America’s LawnBottSpring is the time when a homeowner’s thoughts turn to the backyard. Sizzling barbecues. Games of catch with the kids. An afternoon snooze in a shaded hammock. With all this R&R scheduled for the weekend, the last thing on many people’s minds is cutting the grass.

There’s good news for those of us who don’t want to delegate the task to the high-schooler across the street, a lawn service or—heaven forbid!—ourselves. A new worker has come to the neighborhood that will show up on time, leave no mess and harbor no bad attitude.

The robotic lawn mower has been around for some time. But performance improvements and a wider selection have bumped it from a pie-in-the-sky gadget to a device that is, literally, quite down to earth. Smart, compact and relatively quiet, these backyard buddies free homeowners from scheduling hassles and provide peace of mind by keeping potential strangers off the property.

With a cost of roughly $1,500 to $2,200, robotic mowers pay for themselves in two years’ time compared to most outsourced lawn services, and they can be programmed to cut the grass several times a week, maintaining a uniformly manicured lawn. “It’s like getting a haircut every few days. The lawn always looks freshly cut because it always is,” says LawnBott marketing manager John Tarvin. “It’s like having the perfect teenager.”

The greatest beneficiary may be the environment. These mowers use no oil or gas and thus emit no fumes; nor do they risk leaks or spillage. They’re also much quieter than their gas-driven counterparts. They run on batteries that need recharging, so the docking station needs to be plugged into an outlet. Most models operate on about $20 worth of electricity per year and their ability to consistently keep grass shorter means the lawn needs to be watered less. That’s got to make Al Gore smile.

All models require some initial set up, including rimming your property, flower beds and other areas that don’t need mowing with a wire below grass level that reacts with a microprocessor in the machine. Most of the mowers have built-in laser sensors that detect when they are approaching an object (lawn furniture and play sets are certainly big enough to be detected) and cause them to redirect. They also have touch-sensitive shells or bumpers. The concern lies with smaller toys scattered in the lawn that might be harder to detect, so it’s best to do a backyard pick up beforehand.

When the mowers are at work, common-sense safety practices apply. It’s not a great idea to have the kids outside while the machine is mowing. (Beware: With their diminutive size and bright colors, most actually resemble toys). Many users program their robotic mowers to hit the lawn while no one’s home

It’s also important to remember these machines are optimized for frequent (even daily) lawn trimming rather than a full-blown weekly cut. Here’s a look at this year’s top trio:

The Automower

The lightest of the mainstream robotic mowers, the forest green Automower weighs in at just 19 pounds but packs two independently driven wheel motors. Its cutting disk has three steel blades that can be set to cut grass ranging from one to 2.75 inches long and can handle a maximum slope of 20 degrees, a steeper hill than some of its competitors.

Compared to other mowers, Automower is geared toward smaller yards; it’s best to use it for areas up to a half-acre. It will automatically launch and return to its docking station as programmed and will come back to recharge every hour and a half during its mow. While this is more frequent than some of the larger mowers, it’s literally no sweat off the homeowner’s back. Cost: $2,000; www.automower.com.

Kyodo America’s LawnBott

Though it’s already a staple in Europe, Italian manufacturer Kyodo America introduced the LawnBott across the pond two years ago.

The line now includes three models—the Professional (LB1000), the Deluxe (LB2000) and the Evolution (LB3200). All three can handle about one acre and can be programmed to launch and dock themselves at pre-selected times. They’re also encased in a sensory shell that determines approaching obstacles.

All three units mow for about three hours before coming back to recharge, but they offer increasing customization and performance ability. The Professional and Deluxe have a random spiral that doesn’t discern whether one portion of the yard may need more attention than another. Evolution is more reactionary. It has the ability to sense longer grass spots and as a result, spends more time cutting those areas that need it most. The Evolution also calculates time spent cutting the grass versus idling each time it cuts and can decide to “skip” a mowing session if it deems it unnecessary.

Cost: $1,749 to $2,499; www.lawnbott.com.

Friendly Robotics’ RoboMower

Israel-based Friendly Robotics currently has the greatest share of U.S. customers with its early-to-market RoboMower. The bright green machine looks most like a traditional mower, minus the handle and requisite human. Early criticism—including its inability to self-start—has largely dissipated after the mower was revamped in 2005. Internet distributor RoboMower.us, its largest U.S. distributor, has seen sales rise by more than 15 percent each year for the past four years. “The best news is that customers who bought one four years ago are buying additional RoboMowers for their second homes,” says Jim Pearsall, president/CEO of RoboMower.us. “That’s a sure sign of satisfaction.”

The two RoboMower models—the RL850 and RL1000—look identical but it’s likely the RL1000 will eclipse its less evolved teammate in the near future for one primary reason: The base model does not come with a docking station and thus has to be driven out to the middle of the lawn come mowing time. The new model has a docking station, can be programmed and has features like enhanced sensors that let it make “smart” decisions like heading for cover if it starts to rain. Cost: $1,195 to $1,595; www.RoboMower.us

Writer Catherine Applefeld Olson is based in Alexandria, Virginia.


Friendly Robotics’ RoboMower

The Automower

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