Gardening Lawn

Robotic Lawn Mowers Come Out of the Shadows

Forget this image of a robotic lawn mower. Today’s models look more like a Roomba.

Robotic mowers have been around for quite some time. The first model, the MowBot, came out in 1969 and had many of the features of today’s robotic lawn mowers. Still, it was never widely sold.

By the early 2000s, the number of models began increasing dramatically and now most mower manufacturers offer them, but still, the average homeowner has been slow on the uptake. But will 2017 be the year when the robotic mower finally makes a major breakthrough? I wouldn’t be surprised!

What makes me think so?

First, robotic mowers are suddenly appearing in this spring’s home and garden shows, something you never saw in the past.

Even more interestingly, online advertising for robotic lawn mowers, nearly inexistent until recently, is suddenly everywhere. It seems you can scarcely turn on your computer without an ad for a robot mower appearing on your screen. This is a sign that mower manufacturers feel there has been a major change of attitude among their customers, a renewed interest in this product. Would they be investing all this money in ads if they didn’t feel a radical change in attitude was underway? I don’t think so!

What Is a Robotic Lawn Mower?

Robot Lawn Mower Robot Mower Automatically
Robotic lawn mower: it definitely looks more like a Roomba than a traditional lawn mower.

Today’s robotic lawn mower is a relative of that Roomba vacuum cleaner that now wanders its way through so many homes in looking for dust. Driven by electricity (or sometimes solar energy), it will mow every day if you want it to, making sure your lawn is always impeccable. Simply install a perimeter wire to indicate the limits of your lawn and program its mowing schedule to the hour and frequency that suits you. Most models now have rain sensors that automatically tell it to hold off on mowing until the grass is dry. (Wet grass has never been easy to mow, no matter what type of mower you use.) Recent models can even be managed remotely by smart phone or tablet: when you are in the office or on vacation, for example. You can even sit at your office desk and track their progress thanks to an integrated GPS! How cool is that!

A robotic lawn mower is designed to change direction when it encounters an obstacle (child’s toy, furniture, a human foot, etc.) and is safe with children and pets. There is little noise: just a discreet hum. So, no complaints from neighbors if you decide to mow early Sunday morning. When its workday is finished, it returns to its charging station and plugs itself in, all on its own. Or the sun charges it. Older models had trouble with slopes, but today’s models can handle even angles up to 35%.

As for grass clippings, no push or riding mower cuts them up so finely. Left invisibly on the lawn, they decompose quickly and thus feed your lawn: a perfect example of grasscycling.

Yes, But…

20170502C TIbor Antalo?czy, WC.jpg
Hybrid electrical and solar powered mower. Tibor Antalóczy, Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, such a robotic lawn mower can seem very expensive. Few models cost less than $1,500 US ($2000 CAD, €1400) and high-end models cost twice as much. That’s five to ten times more than a traditional motorized push mower… but not that much more than the suburbanite’s pride and joy, the riding mower. Indeed, some riding mowers cost much more than the most expensive robotic lawn mower.

It’s when you start looking at the benefits that they start to seem less pricey:

  • a perpetually flawless lawn mowed every day if necessary;
  • many, many fewer weeds (most won’t tolerate such frequent mowings);
  • little need for fertilizer, since the clippings are left in place and thus nourish the soil;
  • near silence (especially compared to the annoying roar of the average push or riding mower);
  • improved safety (they are by far the mower least likely to injure a human);
  • little to no intervention on your part.

Imagine! You’ll have time for family activities on weekends again!

Compared to Lawn Maintenance Services

If you are in the habit of having your lawn maintained by a lawn service company, there’s a huge amount of money to be saved! Within three years, you’ll have easily paid for your new robotic mower.

Okay, you’re going to tell me that these companies also include a wide range of services beyond just mowing (herbicide treatments, fertilization, liming, aeration, dethatching, etc.)… but how many of them are really necessary? Often lawn maintenance companies provide treatments the lawn really doesn’t need it just so you can see they are active and thus be willing to renew their contract. Ask yourself this: if your company has been “treating” your lawn for years and it still needs treatment, how effective have they really been?

If you mow a lawn properly, you’ll soon discover most “lawn problems” disappear as if by magic.

Basic to Advanced Models

You can program a robotic mower to mow where you want, when you want.

Any robot mower can mow a small, flat, rectangular surface with no obstacles, but if your terrain is very large or more complex, including several different zones to be mowed and steep slopes, a more sophisticated (and more expensive) model is going to be needed. But the right robotic lawn mower can handle just about anything your terrain might throw at you. For example, you can now easily find a mower with a multizone lawn mowing capability, that is, one that will trundle on along predetermined path to mow a second, third or fourth lawn.

Also, before you buy, check into maintenance needs:

  • Can you install the cables yourself or do you need a specialist? (Personally, I suggest the latter option!)
  • Every mower blade eventually wears down, but how often do you have to sharpen or change your model’s blade? Can you do it easily yourself or do you have to return the lawn mower to the vendor for maintenance?
  • The battery is generally guaranteed for 2 to 5 years (a factor to consider), but when the time comes to change it, it this something you can do yourself or do you have to take it in for servicing?
  • Connectivity (the ability to manage your mower by smart phone or tablet) also costs more. Yes, of course, there is the “coolness factor” of being able to show your workmates your lawn being mowed in real time on your computer screen while you’re kilometers away, but is it really necessary in your case?

Where to Find a Robotic Mower

You probably won’t find robotic mowers in your local garden center or box store. At least not yet. Normally you have to contact the manufacturer (among the many brands available are John Deere, Husqvarna, Robomow, Viking, Wolf-Garten, LawnBott, Denna, Gardena and Bosch) or locate a robotic mower specialist. If there are none in your area, you’ll certainly have no trouble finding one on the Internet!

Have I Made the Switch?

Flowers Crocus Spring Meadow Violet Bloom Yellow
My lawn is also a flower garden and only gets mowed in-between bloomings.

As a self-proclaimed laidback gardener, you’d think I’d have switched over to a robotic lawn mower ages ago, but I haven’t. Why not?

First, I’m just not a lawn person: most of my lot is covered in plantings other than grass. The only lawn space I have left is about 500 square feet (45 square meters) out back and it takes only about 5 minutes to mow, not much of an imposition.

Also, it’s not your traditional lawn: I’ve jammed it full of spring-flowering bulbs and low-growing summer flowers. As a result, I only mow sporadically, in between periods of heavy bloom. Perhaps if manufacturers came up with a robotic mower that would recognize flowers and mow around them, I’d be more interested.

That said, if I had a large turf lawn to mow and didn’t care about bloom, I would definitely buy one.

Long live weekends of relaxation at home while the robotic lawn mower does all the work!018.K

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

2 comments on “Robotic Lawn Mowers Come Out of the Shadows

  1. Annie Mageo

    Do you have store here in Lakewood, Washington?

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