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Twenty-three

Joan Kangro - Kingdom Technologies

Cutting-edge robots take over…

Joan Kangro - Kingdom Technologies

Cutting-edge robots take over

Throw away your garden tools and old-fashioned mowers – the robots are coming. The lawncare and grass-cutting market is worth an estimated $24 billion a year, with domestic users, public parks and golf courses spending vast amounts of money to keep up appearances. Robot mowers have been used for years to automate the process on residential lawns, but until now have been very expensive and far from efficient for larger terrains, and this is where Kingdom Technologies sees a huge gap in the market, by developing a new kind of intelligent robot for commercial lawns which cuts the grass just like a human – without getting backache or ever complaining...

Joan Kangro, the CEO and founder of Kingdom Technologies, likes pushing himself to the limits, and his latest venture to develop a lawnmower robot and sell it all over the world promises to “cut it” in more ways than one.

Always keen to explore new ideas, Kangro has been involved in various projects, including developing an autonomous drone, building the electronics for a formula racing car and designing a number of autonomous rovers. He also spent a year at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa (2016–2017), while he wrote his Master’s Thesis, working on “one of the most advanced humanoid robots in the world,” called iCub, specialising in the artificial skin for the robot, and publishing three academic papers in the process.

Four years ago, while still a student at the University of Glasgow, where he graduated last year with a Master of Engineering degree, specialising in mechatronics, Kangro was co-founder of a company called Gym Diary, managing a team of five people to develop a fitness app, in partnership with a physiotherapist friend. “We thought it was a good idea to digitise the fitness diaries people use to monitor their progress,” says Kangro, and even though there were already a few competitors, we thought we could do it much better.”

Thirty-thousand downloads later, Kangro and his business partner realised the app may not work out as well as they hoped. “We shipped it without having spoken to enough users, and then discovered more than 30 rival companies were developing similar products.”

Maybe Kangro should have talked to another RSE Unlocking Ambition Fellow, Tadas Labudis, who has developed a solution to automate analysis of customer feedback, so companies can make better product decisions (see story on page 20), but at that time he was moving on to other new projects, including the lawnmower robot – determined not to make the same mistakes again.

Before finalising the product design of his lawnmower robot, due for its official launch within the next few months, Kangro spoke to numerous homeowners, retailers, golf courses and city councils in various countries to research his idea, asking them all what their customers ask for and don’t like in similar products. “If I am going to work 70 hours a week to develop the product, I want it to be something that people will buy,” he explains. “Retailers know what their customers want, so every time I spoke to one of them, it was like speaking to thousands of customers at the same time.”

The robot comes to life

The new lawnmower robot is designed to cut all sorts of lawns, including residential, but Kangro is focusing initially on big commercial users such as golf courses and public parks. Kangro says his new design “mows like a human,” and is “ten times more efficient than existing designs,” when you calculate the cost of cutting every square metre of grass. Current robot mowers still have lots of problems, says Kangro, including limited radius and a tendency to move around at random, along with high prices ($15–20,000 for a large-terrain mower). In addition, the current generation of robots needs boundary cables installed in the soil (which constantly draw current and often have to be re-installed), can’t cut the edges of the lawn or cut close up to obstacles and use reactive safety measures that have proven dangerous for children and pets. “Old-school” manual lawnmowers pose even bigger problems, says Kangro, because they are expensive for commercial customers, time-consuming for homeowners and potentially dangerous (69 Americans were killed last year mowing their lawns). Manual mowers also leave behind a large carbon footprint – according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an estimated 5% of US air pollution comes from petrol-driven mowers.

“Robot mowers have been around for about 25 years, but it took a while to make something people would buy,” says Kangro. In Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, a large percentage of homeowners have already adopted the robots, but he believes that his design will capture business from commercial clients because it will “significantly” cut the cost of lawn care and provide a better mowing quality and greater safety, and eliminate the need for a boundary cable.

The safety features of the new design include using sensors to detect nearby humans – the mower beeps then stops as soon as someone gets too close. And if anybody tries to push their hands underneath, the blades are already switched off.

The three-blade cutting mechanism means you can go to the edge of the lawn and mow as close as possible to obstacles, instead of using a manual mower to finish the job. “One blade is simply not good enough,” Kangro declares. “So you can throw your old mowers away!”

Computer vision and intelligent software also help the mower know what's grass and not grass, using machine learning and pattern recognition (colour and texture), and this is what enables the robot to operate without needing boundary cables to map out the lawn. Kangro demonstrates this using a green hoodie laid on the ground, showing how the mower simply avoids it because it can detect it is the wrong shape and texture, even though the colour is the same.

The unique selling point of Kangro’s design, however, is what he describes as its “human-like navigation” capabilities, enabled by his company’s proprietary solution, which includes positioning, mapping and navigation technology.

Development started two and a half years ago, while Kangro was still studying for his Master’s degree. Kingdom Technologies was incorporated in July last year, about the same time Kangro was awarded his RSE Fellowship. The prototype was ready to demonstrate in February this year, and before the production line swings into action, Kangro will be focusing on design for manufacturing. Kingdom Technologies is planning to apply for a patent for the technology behind the human-like navigation, and also needs to make sure it meets regulatory standards before it is put on the market.

The robot mower is expected to cost about £3,500 when bought in larger numbers by commercial clients, retailing to homeowners for about £4,000. A typical golf course with about 40 hectares of rough and 30 hectares of fairway needs about 15 of his robots, and this would mean a capital outlay of £52,500, plus a fleet management fee of £100 per robot per month.

Will the lawnmower robots take over from humans? “The robot mower operates just like a human, so people can get on with more important jobs,” says Kangro.

Investment so far

Since setting up the company, Kangro has won £65,000 in awards (including £45,000 from the RSE). The company has also been accepted onto a Santander Summer Company Incubator Programme and has won a Jay Smith Innovation Award. Kangro is aiming to raise seed round financing later this year to finalise the product design, pilot the first 50 prototype models and start large-scale manufacturing. “With a hardware start-up, your investors want to see your product working in real life,” says Kangro, but he already has letters of intent from retailers and pilots agreed with city councils (including Glasgow and two cities in Estonia) and golf courses.

“I also have a lot of people asking if they can get models to test on their own lawns,” says Kangro. So far, he has been focusing on making presentations, with a view to doing demonstrations later. But once the early users see the potential for savings and the improved efficiency of the design, he is confident orders will follow.

Future plans?

Ultimately, Kangro wants to create an ecosystem of smart garden products, with robots not only to cut grass but blow leaves in autumn and clear snow in winter, as well as measure moisture and intelligently manage irrigation. Some robots could even act as security guards in the garden.

Kangro is not getting carried away by his future ideas, however. “This vision will only be possible,” Kangro makes clear, “if the first product turns out a winner.” Current sales projections are over 700 mowers in 2020, rising to well over 3,000 the following year, so if Kingdom Technologies even comes close to these figures, the plan will be shaping up well.

Even though he is focused on making his lawnmower robot a market success within the next couple of years, and has much more ambitious innovations in mind, Kangro also has an altruistic streak: “My primary field of interest is cutting-edge technology that adds value to society,” he says. But if he wants to help other people and prove his technology works, perhaps he could pilot his “cutting-edge” lawnmower robots with friends and potential investors?

 

The RSE experience

Joan Kangro has not only been awarded £45,000 in funding, but will also receive business training. “Having been involved in setting up another new business before, I don’t want to make all the common mistakes made by start-ups,” he says. His mentor is not only helping with general business advice, but is also highly experienced in design for manufacturing and the supply chain, which Kangro thinks will be invaluable as he  drives his company forward.

 

 

 

 

 

"Joan Kangro - Kingdom Technologies". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-three)
Printed from http://www.sciencescotland.org/feature.php?id=358 on 12/11/19 01:24:40 PM

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