A robot trims the grass at the College Cabin. The neighbors have named it Wilson.
Wilson is a Husqvarna Automower 450XH: an automatic, battery-powered, GPS-controlled lawn mower. The college bought the mower in July, and it’s been mowing since.
“Nibbling,” said Glenn Gilbert, director of facilities. “We don’t call it mowing.”
The mower is about the size of a car tire, with three razor blades mounted on a spinning disc under its sleek, grey frame. It rolls low to the ground, and sports LED headlights (useless for the mower, helpful for humans). For every four and a half hours of mowing, the machine plugs itself into its charging station and rests for an hour.
A buried wire around the perimeter of the cabin’s lawn acts as a dog fence for the mower. The mower moves in straight lines, seemingly at random, and turns when it hits an obstacle or its boundary. It is programmed to occasionally seek out its guide wires, three lines that lead from the charging station to different parts of the lawn, that are hard to access by bumping and turning.
“It’s relentless,” said Mike Gill, who lives on Carter Rd., across from the College Cabin.
In his office, Gilbert opened the Automower app on his iPad to view a satellite image of the College Cabin. The image showed a tangle of red lines tracking the mower’s movement. As Glenn watched, the mower moved again, tracing another red line across the virtual lawn.
Wilson came to the college through Corey Johnson, production leader at Stone Ridge Landscaping and a Goshen College alumnus, class of 2013. Johnson worked at the Physical Plant as a student, and now works and sells automatic lawn mowers at Stone Ridge Landscaping, he said.
Johnson was at a wedding at the College Cabin when it occurred to him that an automatic mower might fit in with Goshen’s efforts to go green. The Automower “saves on fossil fuels and human labor,” he said.
Johnson sent Gilbert an email, and Gilbert was receptive. The College Cabin had been a pain to mow because of its distance from campus, Gilbert said. He had recruited volunteers to help with the mowing, but it was still difficult to ensure a trimmed lawn in time for cabin events.
Since July, the Automower’s constant clipping has kept the grass below three and a half inches, Gilbert guesses. And except for a few instances, the mower has stayed out of trouble.
“It’s not very sophisticated,” said Gilbert. “It just wanders.”
When the mower senses obstacles and boundaries, it pivots and heads off in a new direction. When someone picks it up, its blades stop spinning and an alarm sounds. When it gets stuck, it calls for help.
In the mower’s first week on the job, Gilbert was at home in the evening when he received a notification that the mower was stuck, he said. It had fallen into a groundhog hole.
Another time, the mower wedged itself under the muffler of a truck parked on the lawn. A scar is still visible where the heat melted its plastic body, Gilbert said.
In the months since, there have been fewer problems, he said. Some of the robot’s antics amuse more than they annoy. “The pear tree drops pears, and Wilson slices them,” Gilbert said, smiling. “There are little globs of pear on its wheels.”
Johnson vouched for the mower’s intelligence. “It’s a really smart mower,” he said. “When it bumps it learns where its boundaries are.” The mower will always bump into things, but it will choose more efficient routes over time, Johnson said.
Johnson is optimistic about the potential for automatic mowers to reduce emissions and save money. “It’s an up-and-coming technology in the U.S.,” he said. “In Europe and other eco-friendly parts of the world it’s booming.”
The mower at the College Cabin cost $3,500 to install, and costs 10 cents a day to operate, Gilbert said. He isn’t sure that the robotic mower will pay for itself in gas and labor savings, but he guesses it will, he said.
Stone Ridge Landscaping began selling Automowers this winter, and has sold a handful to homeowners and businesses in Elkhart County.
Jeremy Greenlee, a Goshen resident, bought his automatic mower earlier this year. Its name is Elon. “It does a better job than what I can do,” Greenlee said.
Tim Drescher, a neighbor to the College Cabin, took an interest in Goshen’s Automower when it was first installed. Drescher and his wife, Jen, help rescue the mower when it gets stuck. “It’s almost like a little pet,” he said.
“Right away Jen started thinking of a nickname,” Drescher said. Wilson is named after the friendly neighbor from the 1990s sitcom, “Home Improvement,” he said.
“I’m impressed at how well it does,” Drescher said. “It has kept the grass at a really nice height the entire time.”
Gilbert said he took a chance when he bought the Automower. “I think it’s gone well,” he said. “I can see something like this working nicely on the athletic fields.”
“This is the way of the future,” he said.
Automowers are available for sale at Stone Ridge Landscaping on 9th Street, starting at $1,500.