Utah State University (USU) is a 400-acre campus located in Logan, Utah. It’s one of the largest public universities in the state with more than 27,000 enrolled students. The university’s Landscape Operations and Maintenance (LOAM) team manages about 100 acres of turf and removes snow on miles of sidewalks. Logan averages 53 inches of snow per year. USU is renowned for its beautiful landscaping, including several sports fields, countless lawns, and the Quad, a large grassy park at the heart of the campus. The university earned an America in Bloom Award in 2004.
- Finding staff in spring and fall can be challenging. USU’s seasonal landscape staff are mostly college and high school students which causes gaps in their seasonal workforce. “We have a hard time getting staff in the spring time and the fall time. Students are trying to get good grades; they’re trying to focus on homework. And as being an entity of the university, we’re very supportive of that. We want people to go get their education and go to school,” said Shane Richards, LOAM manager at USU.
- Located just west of the Wasatch Mountains in northern Utah, the USU campus faces a wide range of weather and landscape maintenance challenges. Snow can fall in May. Grass might require a trim into late fall. To make robotics economical, the USU team wanted a machine that could work year around and change with the weather.
- The campus’ parks, fields, and lawns fan out in many directions and there’s lots of daily logistics at the jobsite. One area, a 7-acre, cross-country park, is located away from the main campus. This wide-open, grassy park requires transporting lawn equipment and mowing every other day during fast growing season.
After two hands-on dealer demos, USU picked Left Hand Robotics for their first venture into autonomous robots. They liked the modular design of the RT-1000 to change out attachments like the mower deck and power broom. They also liked the flexibility to use the autonomous tractor during off-hours to avoid disturbing classes and students during the day.
RMT Equipment, a Left Hand Robotics dealer, also set them up with lease program to give them extra time to evaluate the technology with less financial risk.
The university deployed the robot on campus in April 2020. The team helped USU set up the robot and map its first jobsite: the 7-acre cross-country track and park located off the main campus. The RT-1000 is equipped with a 63-inch mower deck and the robot mows the Kentucky bluegrass field to a 3-inch height a few times a week.
Jason Petterborg, mowing crew lead at USU, says robot mowing days are easy to get started. He fills the robot with fuel, drives it out to the field, and hits start. It takes 6-7 hours to mow the field. Meanwhile, other crew members trim and edge the big field for about 20 minutes then go work on other jobs while the robot autonomously mows. Every week they change the mowing pattern of the robot to keep the grass healthy.
As the USU crew becomes more comfortable with the Left Hand Robotics technology they will expand the robot to other mowing jobs. And, when snow comes, the mower deck will be swapped out for a power broom to brush sidewalk snow.
The LOAM crew says its happy with the results after 3 months into the mowing season. “When I go onto that cross-country track and look at it, it’s just a beautiful looking area. It’s clean. It looks straight and it’s just manicured now,” said Richards who added they are planning to build a shed to store the robot onsite.
Petterborg said he’s impressed with the performance so far and they will measure success in a few areas such as ongoing maintenance costs and how much manpower is needed to keep it going.
The robot is allowing them to re-assign their crew to focus on a longlist of other tasks. “(The robot) gives us manpower when we don’t have the manpower available,” added Richards. No staff has been replaced by the robot, Richards said.
Watch this page for additional updates as Left Hand Robotics hears more from USU.