Mown Away: Startup Rolls Out Autonomous Lawnmower With Cutting-Edge Tech

Startup is building AI-driven electric mowers that also cut noise and pollution.
by Scott Martin

Jack Morrison and Isaac Roberts, co-founders of Replica Labs, were restless two years after their 3D vision startup was acquired, seeking another adventure. Then, in 2018, when Morrison was mowing his lawn, it struck him: autonomous lawn mowers.

The two, along with Davis Foster, co-founded Scythe Robotics. The company, based in Boulder, Colo., has a 40-person team working with robotics and computer vision to deliver what it believes to be the first commercial electric self-driving mower service.

Scythe’s machine, dubbed M.52, collects a dizzying array of data from eight cameras and more than a dozen other sensors, processed by NVIDIA Jetson AGX Xavier edge AI computing modules.

The company plans to rent its machines to customers much like is done in a software-as-as-service model, but based on acreage of cut grass, reducing upfront costs.

“I thought, if I didn’t enjoy mowing the lawn, what about the folks who are doing it every day. Wasn’t there something better they could do with their time?” said Morrison. “It turned out there’s a strong resounding ‘yes’ from the industry.”

The startup, a member of the NVIDIA Inception program, says it already has thousands of reservations for its on-demand robots. Meanwhile, it has a handful of pilots, including one with Clean Scapes, a large Austin-based commercial landscaping company.

Scythe’s electric machines are coming as regulatory and corporate governance concerns highlight the need for cleaner landscaping technologies.

What M.52 Can Do

Scythe’s M.52 machine is about as state of the art as it gets. Its cameras support vision on all sides, and its dozen sensors include ultrasonics, accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, GPS and wheel encoders.

To begin a job, the M.52 needs to only be manually driven on the perimeter of an area just once. Scythe’s robot mower relies on its cameras, GPS and wheel encoders to help plot out maps of its environment with simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM.

After that, the operator can direct the M.52 to an area and specify a direction and stripe pattern, and it completes the job unsupervised. If it encounters an obstacle that shouldn’t be there — like a bicycle on the grass — it can send alerts for an assist.

“Jetson AGX Xavier is a big enabler of all of this, as it can be used in powerful machines, brings a lot of compute, really low power, and hooks into the whole ecosystem of autonomous machine sensors,” said Morrison.

Scythe’s robo-mowers pack enough battery for eight hours of use on a charge, which can come from a standard level 2 EV charger. And the company says fewer moving parts than combustion engine mowers means less maintenance and a longer service life.

Also, the machine can go 12 miles per hour and includes a platform for operators to stand on for a ride. It’s designed for jobs sites where mowers may need to travel some distance to get to the area of work.

Riding the RaaS Wave

The U.S. market for landscaping services is expected to reach more than $115 billion this year, up from about $70 billion in 2012, according to IBISWorld research.

Scythe is among an emerging class of startups offering robots as a service, or RaaS, in which customers pay according to usage.

It’s also among companies operating robotics services whose systems share similarities with AVs, Morrison said.

“An advantage of Xavier is using these automotive-grade camera standards that allow the imagery to come across with really low latency,” he said. “We are able to turn things around from photon to motion quite quickly.”

Earth-Friendly Machines

Trends toward lower carbon footprints in businesses are a catalyst for Scythe, said Morrison. LEED certification for greener buildings counts the equipment used in maintenance — such as landscaping — driving interest for electric equipment.

Legislation from California, which aims to prohibit sales of gas-driven tools by 2024, factors in as well. A gas-powered commercial lawn mower driven one hour emitted as much of certain pollutants as driving a passenger vehicle 300 miles, according to a fact sheet released from the California Air Resources Board in 2017.

“There’s a lot of excitement around what we are doing because it’s becoming a necessity, and those in landscaping businesses know that they won’t be able to secure the equipment they are used to,” said Morrison.

Learn more about Scythe Robotics in this GTC presentation.