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Autonomous mowers bring benefits to Franklin parks

Autonomous Mowers
Autonomous mowers presently in use at the Parks at Harlinsdale Farms and Eastern Flank Battlefield Park in Franklin.


TT&C Assistant Editor

Autonomous mowers are helping the city of Franklin save time and manpower, especially as summer heats up. 

The Franklin Parks and Recreation Department began outsourcing some of its mowing to local contractors Landscape Services, Inc., (LSI) in 2018 and in 2023, the company approached the city about utilizing a new service: autonomous mowing.  

The city had already been doing some of its own research into whether autonomous mowing would be a good fit. Franklin Parks Department Grounds Crew Chief Lee Williams said parks officials met with LSI and mower manufacturer RC Mower at the Parks at Harlinsdale Farm for a demonstration of how the mowers would operate.  

Following the demonstration, Williams said the city spent some time weighing the merits of adding the service as well as talking with both companies to address safety concerns. A second meeting was held to ensure these concerns were addressed.  

“Both the city and the parks department had some concerns about the mowers, mainly regarding safety,” Williams said. “This was addressed through collaboration between the city of Franklin’s Risk Management Department and LSI. A plan was developed to prioritize safety. LSI also has an employee constantly monitoring the mowers who carries a controller that has a kill switch that can immediately shut down the mowers. If anything comes in front of the mower, it will stop immediately. It has a buffer zone of about 10 feet or so, and if the sensors on that mower pick up something that is not supposed to be in that area it immediately shuts down.” 

With these questions answered, LSI began deploying autonomous mowers in the large greenspaces of two Franklin Parks: the Parks at Harlinsdale Farm and Eastern Flank Battlefield Park. Williams said three mowers are presently being utilized.  

“The mowers are programmed with a smart phone app and operate on a grid-pattern system,” he said. “After an operator mows the grid pattern the first time, the mower saves that information into a database. Once the mowing is complete in the designated area of the grid it will stop. The operator can then move the mower to the next area. Another manned crew then comes in to do all the other work along the edges.” 

While efficiency is one of the main reasons the city chose to implement the mowers, Williams said they have other benefits as well. The danger of working outside in hot temperatures as well as the difficulty of hiring employees willing to do this outdoor work has rendered autonomous mowing a solution for both the city of Franklin and LSI.  

Additionally, Williams said the three autonomous mowers only need one employee to operate them while it would take three employees to mow the same area manually.  

“The added benefit for LSI is that three of these mowers can operate at one time and each is mowing its own grid,” he said. “Another manned crew can then be off doing another task. It’s basically a normal, zero-turn mower with a lot of sensors on it. They are protected by coverings, and we have operated with them in light rain. The mowers typically can operate like a manned mower would in weather.” 

While the mowers moving without a driver made many Franklin residents take a second look initially, Williams said the technology is quickly becoming an afterthought for those who frequent the parks.  

“There has been a lot of interest from park patrons, asking about the operations and safety,” he said. “The mowers definitely attract attention and some curious stares. You’ll even see cars going down the road slow down or stop so they can stare or parks patrons walking who stop to make sure they’re really seeing what they’re seeing. We’ve also had a few phone calls about it. They’re not catching as much attention as they were, but there is still some interest.” 

For other cities considering either purchasing or contracting out work to autonomous mowers, Williams recommends reaching out to contractors and manufacturers to get more information.  

“I would definitely do my research and do some demonstrations with companies,” he said. “It should be what works best for each location. If you feel like it would be efficient or are down on manpower and you want to save labor costs, it’s definitely something to look into. Most manufacturers are willing to do a demo, and it’s neat to just watch.”