By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – “Snips” and “Chopper” are pretty easy to work with.
They quietly head out to do their job – day or night – without much supervision, requiring only the occasional break to recharge their batteries.
“They do their own thing,” grounds supervisor Dick Wardyn said of the newest additions to the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s lawn care team.
“Snips” and “Chopper,” a pair of appropriately nicknamed robotic mowers, were introduced to campus last week as part of a pilot project launched by UNK Facilities Management and Planning.
The goal, according to assistant director Michael Cremers, is to increase efficiency and flexibility within the department while trimming the university’s annual landscaping expenses.
“We’re stretched pretty thin, so we’re trying to be as efficient as possible,” Cremers said. “This allows us to refocus our resources on all the other things we do.”
UNK has seven full-time grounds services employees who handle the mowing, trimming, weeding and other tasks needed to keep a roughly 150-acre area looking picturesque. Mowing alone can consume 120 man-hours a week.
“We can get bogged down sitting on a mower for eight hours a day,” said Cremers, who floated the idea of using new technology to lighten the load.
The robotic mowers, which UNK purchased for $3,500 apiece, function like an oversize, outdoor Roomba with headlights. They turn on at a preset time, then begin cutting the grass within boundaries marked by underground wires.
When the mower’s battery gets low, it automatically returns to a charging station.
A smartphone app is used to view the mower’s progress and battery level, as well as adjust its schedule. The app also sends a notification if the mower gets stuck or moves outside the boundaries.
“If anything happens, it tells us,” said Wardyn, noting that the GPS system can be used to track the machine.
UNK deployed its automatic mowers at the marching band practice field between the College of Education building and West Center.
Instead of addressing this area once a week, which was typical in the past, the Husqvarna Automowers maintain a consistent grass height using small blades that shave off around an eighth of an inch at a time.
“You’re getting a cleaner cut and a healthier lawn,” said Cremers, who sees potential savings in fertilizer and aeration costs.
The battery-powered Automowers are quieter than traditional lawn mowers – a major perk on a university campus – and there’s an environmental benefit since the electric motors eliminate emissions and reduce energy consumption. Husqvarna estimates the electricity cost for each Automower is $10 to $50 per mowing season, depending on the yard size.
“It’s a fraction of the cost compared to diesel fuel,” Cremers said.
Down the line, Cremers added, the charging stations could be set up to run entirely on solar power. UNK currently receives 25 percent of its electricity from a solar park in northeast Kearney.
Facilities Management will evaluate the pilot project this fall before deciding whether to add more robotic mowers on campus.
“We certainly have hopes of growing the program,” Cremers said.
Lawn mowing isn’t the only area where UNK Facilities Management and Planning is turning to technology to reduce expenses and increase efficiencies.
An irrigation system introduced last summer utilizes a weather station located on top of the General Services Building to control the sprinklers at certain locations across campus.
The station, which is equipped with a rain gauge, sends information to wireless controllers that automatically adjust the watering schedule based on weather conditions and recent precipitation. Older controllers must be manually adjusted by facilities employees.
Cremers said the system – currently used near the College of Education building and Village Flats and University Residence South residence halls – will eventually be installed campuswide.
“We’re trying to make strategic investments in everything we do,” said Lee McQueen, director of UNK Facilities Management and Planning. “We’re trying to look ahead and make the best use of our money, because we know resources are not unlimited.”