We sat down with Jarrett Herold, co-founder and COO of Electric Sheep Robotics, San Francisco, Calif. The company develops robotics technology designed to address the outdoor labor shortage. Their clamp-on hardware and software turns commercial mowers used in lawn maintenance and turf maintenance into self-driving machines.
We got Herold’s thoughts on the biggest issue facing the landscaping industry, how technology is changing the landscaping industry, how autonomous mowing is different from self-driving cars, and more.
Rural Lifestyle Dealer: What is the biggest issue facing the landscaping industry?
Herold: The biggest challenge is labor, and I don’t foresee that changing in the next 3-5 years. It’s challenging to find quality talent to service the landscaping business. A lot of companies we talk to are struggling to run their businesses because of the volatility of labor. They’re struggling to grow and take on new accounts. It makes it really hard to know what the cost of labor is going to be. They may not go to certain client sites or end up paying overtime.
RLD: Why is it difficult for the landscaping industry to find labor?
Herold: Customers are always asking for a cheaper price. Inflation and the cost of labor itself are also factors. Landscaping is already a low margin business, usually running around a 10% profit margin or even lower. There’s not a lot of wiggle room to pay people more. It’s also a matter of the current work re-evaluation we’re seeing. People are deciding they don’t want to work in the hot sun 8 hours a day for standard pay. There’s other work out there using your brain that’s much more appealing. So, we have to transform the opportunities available to the workforce.
RLD: How is technology improving the landscaping business?
Herold: Landscape maintenance operators are constrained by how much work they can do. By adding autonomous mowing, now the operator is managing a fleet of mowers, maximizing impact, and can be paid more. Many in the landscaping workforce are not educated, but you don’t have to have a degree to operate an autonomous mower. If you can work with an iPhone or iPad, there are so many things you can do, but Electric Sheep’s technology doesn’t even require that. Working with mowers in the field is as simple as pushing buttons, without any major upskilling. Autonomous mowers still cut the grass the same way that commercially available mowers do, just with smarter technology attached. We haven’t added a need to learn how to use new equipment, additional upkeep, cost of ownership, etc.
RLD: Why have technology companies typically ignored the landscaping industry in the past?
Herold: The pieces of technology are now becoming widely available at a price that can be applied to the landscaping industry. Tens of billions of dollars have been put into self-driving vehicles because people see them every day. The landscaping industry is very different — it’s a bit of a hidden industry, and upkeep and maintenance aren’t at the front of people’s minds. Self-driving vehicles have brought down the prices of LIDAR, GPS, components and sensors, so now it’s time to have a mower drive itself.
RLD: How is autonomous mowing different from self-driving cars?
Herold: Compared to self-driving cars, autonomous mowers are slow-moving, traversing the same area repeatedly over the course of a year. A self-driving car can’t always stop, but an autonomous mower can. From a safety standpoint, the default is to stop and shut the machine off until you know what you’re dealing with. That’s unique to the landscaping industry, which makes the industry well-suited for automation.
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