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Q&A: Scythe Robotics’ Jack Morrison on Commercial Mower Robotics


June 27, 2022

Lawn mowing is set to become one of the next areas where autonomous mobile robots can disrupt an industry. While robotic lawn mowers for residential homes have slowly emerged over the years, the sector is now seeing commercial mower systems with either full or semi-autonomous navigation.

Robotics-World recently spoke with Jack Morrison, CEO of Scythe Robotics, one of the hottest startups in the space. The company recently announced passing 5,000 reservations for its M.52, an all-electric, fully autonomous mower aimed at commercial landscapers. The Boulder, Colo.-based Scythe also raised $13.8 million in Series A funding in June 2021 to help scale the business.

Robotics-World: Congratulations on getting all of the reservations for the M.52 system. What do you think is driving this huge demand for autonomous mowers?

Morrison: Thank you! We are thrilled to see this phenomenal demand from the market. Landscape contractors are eager to deploy M.52 because it solves the two largest challenges facing their businesses today: a chronic labor shortage and a massive pollution problem.

Landscaping contractors are wrestling with an intensifying labor shortage that cripples their productivity and restricts their growth – 77% of landscaping businesses say their growth is stunted by a lack of labor. Notoriously low worker retention rates and increasing labor costs further compound the effects of this labor shortage.

At the same time, these businesses face the urgent need to transition to more sustainable operations and leave their highly polluting equipment behind. Their clients demand it, local governments require it, and the planet desperately needs it. The increasingly visible effects of climate change have brought the issue to top of mind across markets, and businesses are being pressured to take climate action immediately.

The committed reservations count for M.52 demonstrates how the fully autonomous, all-electric technology we’ve developed can relieve these deeply felt labor pains and sustainability pressures that landscaping businesses are experiencing.

R-W: Why has it taken a while for companies to develop autonomous mowers, when comparing this technology to other mobile robots or autonomous vehicles? Are there technological challenges within the mowing task that other robots don’t have? How did Scythe Robotics overcome those challenges?

JackMorrisonScythe200pxMorrison: Building robots to operate in unstructured, off-road environments presents challenges that differ from those facing indoor mobile robots and autonomous on-road vehicles.

M.52 has to stand up to the unique demands of commercial landscaping. The properties our customers maintain have tough terrain and steep slopes that require extreme durability. Landscapers put our machines through a great deal of stress too, running them for eight or more hours a day, jumping curbs, and traveling across large job sites. The robot also faces intense weather – from record-high temperatures we’re already seeing this summer to unexpected downpours – and must be able to operate in a range of conditions.

The dynamic nature of outdoor landscapes requires highly detailed, real-time perception, which is why we designed a sophisticated sensor suite tailored to our environment. The M.52 is equipped with eight high-dynamic range cameras, in addition to ultrasonic and other sensors. Systems built on lidar, while commonly used in robotics, can struggle in our application because the dirt, dust, and grass clippings in the air can obscure the sensors.

To overcome these technical challenges, we built M.52 from the ground up with deep hardware-software integration that enables better performance and greater safety. As a result, M.52 can autonomously cut straighter stripes, tackle steeper slopes, and better maneuver around obstacles. It’s a more difficult approach with longer development time, but critical for the performance we need in the field.

R-W: Can the technology you developed for commercial mowers be applied at a consumer level? Or is that a space where there are so many other companies looking at consumer lawn robotics that doesn’t make it worthwhile?

Morrison: While we are laser-focused on the commercial market with M.52 today, our autonomy stack will be able to power a range of automatable tasks across landscaping. Our technology is certainly relevant for residential applications, but the consumer market has unique dynamics and product requirements that would require a different approach than the one we’re taking in commercial landscaping.

For example, we have a usage-based pricing model where landscapers pay per acre mowed rather than buying the machine outright. While this aligns with the incentives of their businesses, it wouldn’t be a feasible approach for homeowners. Additionally, building a robot that meets a consumer price point requires significant trade-offs.

It’s exciting to see the surge of activity in the consumer market – it’s advancing the robotics industry at large and making robots more common in everyday life. But we’re focused on the B2B side of landscaping because it’s where we can have the biggest impact the fastest.

Scythe Closeup800

R-W: With the surge in demand for the M.52, what challenges do you now face to meet that demand?

Morrison: Our reservations count represents a years-long production backlog, so scaling our team to manufacture and support thousands of fielded M.52 units is our top priority. It’s probably the expected answer, but the global supply chain crunch is impacting businesses of all kinds, Scythe included.

In the face of this challenging supply chain environment, we are working closely with our great vendors to plan for our production ramp as we together transform the robotics and landscaping industries. We recently brought on the former SpaceX Starlink Production Lead to head manufacturing at Scythe and grow the machine that builds the machine.

R-W: How does Scythe differentiate itself from larger commercial mowing equipment companies that could potentially develop autonomous mowers on their own, such as retrofitting existing equipment with autonomy, or developing their own system? What advantages can you provide?

Morrison: Scythe’s collaborative culture creates a fast-paced environment where innovation thrives. Our cross-functional team is intentionally structured to design fully integrated solutions. We break down silos and practice integrative decision-making to build the most impactful, highest performing product possible.

Many of the larger commercial mowing equipment companies are inherently hardware organizations with either limited in-house software expertise or software teams that operate independently. They have trusted brands and established market positions, but our fully integrated approach – which is evident in our organizational structure and core to our design philosophy – sets us and our products apart.

Scythe Team Colorado800px

R-W: What has been the most enjoyable part of growing Scythe Robotics?

Morrison: Building and maintaining this amazing team has been the best part of growing Scythe. From the start of the company, I’ve focused on creating the kind of environment that I wanted to be part of as an engineer, and that has attracted some amazing teammates to Scythe from across industries.

My co-founders, Isaac Roberts and Davis Foster, have deep expertise in hardware and sales, respectively. Along with my background in computer vision, we represent the disciplines within the organization, and we’ve together fostered a unique type of teamwork across them. It’s been great to blend the strengths of hardware, software, and operational cultures to build a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

R-W: What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Morrison: We realized early on that most of the technology we needed to build our autonomy stack wasn’t available off-the-shelf. From motor controllers and sensors to software and tooling, we truly had to build M.52 from the ground up. Nearly all of its hardware and software has been custom designed at Scythe so we can build the machine that will help us achieve our mission.

Scythe MowerClose800

R-W: What was the best advice you received when starting the company? Would you give that same advice now to an engineer or roboticist looking to start their own company?

Morrison: “Do things that don’t scale” – this startup maxim is really sage in the early days of building a company, even though it breaks conventional wisdom. When you’re creating a business, you’re constantly learning new information that changes product requirements and technical needs, so focusing exclusively on “scalable” solutions before they’re needed wastes time and resources. You might also miss out on the critical insights that small-scale efforts can produce if you jump straight to scalability.

For example, we are working on the fifth generation of the mower. We’ve continued making small improvements as we learn more. We focused first on the big learnings around components and requirements before shifting to aesthetics or scalable manufacturing. This iterative approach allowed us to build a better product that is now ready to scale.

R-W: Where do you see Scythe Robotics in two to three years?

Morrison: In two or three years, we’ll be doing exactly what we set out to do: getting thousands of landscaping workers off their mowers and onto more valuable work, all while eliminating their emissions from mowing entirely. We have a massive backlog of demand to service, so our focus for the next few years will be on scaling M.52 production and deployments.

R-W: What other parts of the robotics space (either technologies or other markets/tasks) are you monitoring for innovation ideas or other trends?

Morrison: We use the Rust programming language heavily at Scythe. I love seeing how other robotics, IoT, and hardware companies are using Rust to build better, faster, and more reliable software. There are some inspiring, innovative applications out there!

For more information on Scythe Robotics, visit its website here. All photos courtesy of Scythe Robotics.

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