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Yes, Tampa Bay, that’s a little Roomba-like robot mowing the lawn

A Madeira Beach couple is in the business of Mowbots, robot mowers that work with GPS to quietly cut the grass. And yes, some customers name their bots.
The Churches of Madiera Beach sell  Mowbots like this one, a little lawn mowing robot that works like a Roomba. They named theirs Li'l Mo.
The Churches of Madiera Beach sell Mowbots like this one, a little lawn mowing robot that works like a Roomba. They named theirs Li'l Mo. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 28, 2020
Updated Nov. 30, 2020

More than once, people have stopped near Christi DeGeare’s St. Petersburg home and stared at her front yard.

They’re curious about the wheeled apparatus about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage that’s moving busily across her grass and looking like a futuristic remote-control car.

It’s a robot lawn mower, she tells them, a service she’s had for two-and-a-half months now.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, she has a name for it. It’s Mo Mo.

“We love it,” she said.

Tim and Kim Church opened their Mowbot of Pinellas franchise in July and now sell the monthly service to a dozen customers. It’s similar to a regular lawn care business, except the Roomba-like robots, manufactured by Swedish outdoor equipment company Husqvarna, do the mowing. The robots run off battery power and are touted as an eco-friendly option that keeps people out of the yard in the time of COVID-19.

For the Churches, it happened like this: At the start of the pandemic when so much was shut down, they noticed on their regular walks around their Madeira Beach neighborhood that two things kept going: trash pick-up and lawn service.

And Kim Church, 55, had been hearing a lot of loud lawn equipment in the background of Zoom calls for work. “Everybody had a mower behind them,” she said.

As a project manager for a Chicago company, she was considering getting into something that wouldn’t have her traveling in the time of the coronavirus. Tim Church, 52, has owned different franchises over the years and is a self-professed gadget geek. Robot mowers sounded intriguing.

Kim Church, 55, and her husband Tim Church, 52, with two of their Husqvarna Automowers in their front yard in Madeira Beach. The Churches have a franchise that sells Mowbots, a lawn mowing robot that operates like a Roomba, mowing on its own.
Kim Church, 55, and her husband Tim Church, 52, with two of their Husqvarna Automowers in their front yard in Madeira Beach. The Churches have a franchise that sells Mowbots, a lawn mowing robot that operates like a Roomba, mowing on its own. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Florida also has Mowbot businesses in Tampa and Orlando.

A dark-colored version of the Mowbot might bring to mind a mini-version of the talking car David Hasselhoff drove in the 1980s TV show Knight Rider. Mowbot fans liken them to a smart Roomba — those autonomous vacuum cleaners — but for your yard.

Here’s how it works: A perimeter wire is installed underground on the customer’s property similar to invisible fencing for a dog. That gives the robot its boundaries and keeps it from crossing driveways or tumbling into fish ponds.

A charging station that looks like a large computer mouse pad with a slight overhang for the Mowbot to poke its nose in is placed somewhere out of the way and plugged in to the customer’s electrical power. Mowbots are programmed to know when they are getting low and to head back to the charger on their own to get reenergized.

The robot takes the first few weeks to learn the lawn, Tim Church says, using GPS to map it and concentrate on spots where it’s needed.

It turns and pivots and moves slowly enough for someone to walk beside it. The sound is akin to the low hum of a dishwasher.

From his computer or cell phone, Tim Church can send instructions and troubleshoot if a unit is stopped. When Tropical Storm Eta approached, he sent out signals telling Mowbots to return to base until it passed.

“I get excited about the gadget stuff, so I love that part of it,” he said.

The robots can run in the rain and are equipped with headlights so customers can see them if they want them to run at night.

Underneath the bot are three micro-razor blades that cut between 1/16th and 1/18th of an inch of grass — the idea being to give the lawn a consistent trim, not a dramatic weekly haircut. A yard’s square footage determines how many hours it runs.

On the DeGeares’ average-size lawn, the robot goes two or three days a week for about 90 minutes, including time out to charge.

And what if it comes upon something like a squirrel, a tree or a child?

“The blades are on swivels and when they hit something they retract,” said Tim Church. If it bumps into something in its path, it turns and goes somewhere else, he said.

Customers buy subscriptions for the service, paying an average of $100 a month for residential jobs. There’s also an installation fee determined by the complexity of the property, usually $200-$300 that’s discounted $100 for every year they sign up for, he said.

“We own the bots,” Kim Church said. “They live in your yard.”

Her husband likes to ask customers what they plan to name it. There’s Mowrece and The Count. The Churches have Li’l Moe and Maggie’s Back. Not everyone is so inclined. One customer with a larger property calls the two units “front yard” and “back yard.” Another simply: the mower.

The Churches have heard tell of a Mowbot customer in Colorado who was frustrated by geese pooping on his property and affixed a stuffed coyote to the unit to ride around on it.

Even without a coyote, the bots get posted on Snapchat by passers-by.

DeGeare says she likes to see hers at work.

“It makes me happy for some reason,” she said. “I don’t know why.”