Edmonton eyes more robots for mowing, snow removal

Edmonton is looking at expanding its inventory of self-driving groundskeeping units, moving from lawn mowing to snow removal on pathways.

Gas-powered tractor meant to complement labour crews, manufacturer says

The RT-1000 autonomous tractor can be outfitted with snow clearing or mowing attachments. (Left Hand Robotics)

First they mowed lawns.

Now the machines may be coming for our snow-covered walkways.

Edmonton is looking at expanding its inventory of self-driving groundskeeping units, moving from lawn mowing to snow removal on pathways.

This week, the city posted a tender for a "commercial class self-driving mower and snow-clearing robot."

The tender identifies Colorado-based Left Hand Robotics' RT-1000 Snowbot Pro is an example of a machine meeting the city's requirements.

The online store lists the base model as starting at about $46,000 per unit with volume discounts available.

Founder and CEO Terry Olkin said among the tractor's advantages is its efficiency and ability to work through bad weather without taking a break.

The unit uses radar and other sensors to ensure the safety of pedestrians and animals while a hydraulic braking system means it can stop quickly when it needs to.

"It is a gas engine so it's not going to sneak up on you," Olkin said.

The unit can be sent out and work throughout the night, he said. 

Future of groundskeeping

The future of groundskeeping in Edmonton began last year when the city employed two self-piloted mowers.

That program is expanding with two more of the small, battery-powered, Roomba-like devices to mow fields in Glenora and the Telus World of Science, city operations spokesperson Rohit Sandhu said in an email.

"These smaller mowing units can operate 24/7 and have resulted in numerous benefits," Sandhu said.

He highlights a lack of noise, reduced carbon emissions, and fuel savings. Each of the Husqvarna 450X mowers costs the city about $9,000 to purchase and install.

The RT-1000 Snowbot Pro was used by the city of Longmont, Colo., last winter. (Left Hand Robotics)

Automated jobs

While RT-1000 Snowbot Pro can be outfitted to both clear sidewalks or mow fields, much of the work will be left to human hands, Olkin said.

"When it comes to cities, there's always a bit of concern about our robots taking jobs away," Olkin said. "We just like to emphasize … that this isn't meant to take jobs away, it's really meant to complement the work that's already being done."

John Mervyn, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 30, said he doesn't believe groundskeeping technology is at the point where workers will be replaced.

"At the moment, the autonomous stuff, while as smart as they are, are nowhere near as smart as a human being," he said.

If a job is someday automated, Mervyn said workers are guaranteed transfer to another position.

"But unfortunately that would mean new people wouldn't be able to come into those traditional roles," he added.

An automated lawn mower is recharged in Coronation Park last summer. The mower has a four hour battery life and takes one hour to recharge. (CBC)


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