More than once, people have stopped near Christi DeGeare’s home in St. Petersburg and stared at her front yard.
They are curious about the wheel set the size of a carry-on bag that moves busily across their grass and looks like a futuristic remote-controlled car.
It’s a robot lawn mower, she tells them, a service she’s had for two and a half months.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, she has a name for it. It’s Mo Mo
“We love it,” she said.
Tim and Kim Church opened their Mowbot of Pinellas franchise in July and are now selling the monthly service to a dozen customers. It’s similar to a regular lawn care business, except that the Roomba-like robots, made by Swedish outdoor equipment company Husqvarna, do the mowing. The robots run on battery power and are considered an environmentally friendly option that will keep people out of the yard during the COVID-19 era.
For the churches it happened like this: At the beginning of the pandemic, when so much was shut down, they noticed on their regular walks in their Madeira Beach neighborhood that two things were going on: garbage collection and lawn service.
And Kim Church, 55, had heard a lot of loud lawn tools in the background of zoom prompts for work. “Everyone had a mower behind them,” she said.
As a project manager for a company in Chicago, she considered embarking on something that wouldn’t let her travel during the coronavirus era. Tim Church, 52, has owned various franchises over the years and is an avowed gadget geek. Robotic mowers sounded fascinating.
Kim Church, 55, and her husband Tim Church, 52, with two of their Husqvarna Automowers in their front yard in Madeira Beach. The churches have a franchise that sells Mowbots, a robot lawn mower that works like a Roomba and mows itself.
Florida also has mowbot stores in Tampa and Orlando.
A dark version of the Mowbot might be reminiscent of a mini version of the talking car that David Hasselhoff drove on the 1980s TV show Knight Rider. Mowbot fans compare them to a smart Roomba – these autonomous vacuum cleaners – but for your garden.
Here’s how it works: A perimeter wire is installed underground on the customer’s property, much like an invisible fence for a dog. This gives the robot its limits and prevents it from crossing driveways or falling into fish ponds.
A charging station that looks like a large computer mouse pad with a slight overhang into which the Mowbot can stick its nose is placed somewhere out of the way and connected to the customer’s power supply. Mowbots are programmed to know when to go low and to return to the charger themselves for power back up.
The robot needs the first few weeks to learn to lawn, says Tim Church. It uses GPS to map it and focus on where it is needed.
It spins and spins and moves slowly enough for someone to go wrong. The sound is similar to the low hum of a dishwasher.
From his computer or cell phone, Tim Church can send instructions and troubleshoot when a device is paused. As Tropical Storm approached Eta, it sent out signals telling Mowbots to return to base until it was over.
“I’m excited about the gadget stuff, so I love that part of it,” he said.
The robots can walk in the rain and are equipped with spotlights so customers can see them when they want them to walk at night.
There are three micro-razor blades under the bot that cut between 1/16 and 1/18 inch of grass. The idea is to give the lawn an even trim, not a dramatic weekly haircut. The square footage of a yard determines how many hours it runs.
On the DeGeares’ average-sized lawn, the robot drives around 90 minutes two or three days a week, including time off to recharge.
And what if it comes across something like a squirrel, a tree, or a child?
“The blades are rotatable and when they hit something they retract,” said Tim Church. If it encounters something in its path, it turns around and goes somewhere else, he said.
Customers buy subscriptions to the service and pay an average of $ 100 per month for residential jobs. There’s also an installation fee, depending on the complexity of the property, usually $ 200 to $ 300, which is reduced by $ 100 for each year they sign up for, he said.
“We own the bots,” said Kim Church. “You live in your garden.”
Her husband likes to ask customers what they want to call it. There’s Mowrece and The Count. The churches have Li’l Moe and Maggie’s backs. Not everyone is so inclined. A customer with a larger property calls the two units “front yard” and “back yard”. Another simple one: the mower.
The churches heard from a Mowbot customer in Colorado who was frustrated by geese pooping on his property and attached a stuffed coyote to the unit to drive around on.
Even without coyotes, passers-by post the bots on Snapchat.
DeGeare says she likes to see hers at work.
“It makes me happy for some reason,” she said. “I do not know why.”