Swap Robotics, a company that manufactures electric grass-cutting and snow removal robots, presented today at TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield to detail how it’s making sustainable outdoor work equipment. For the next few years, 95% of the startup’s focus will be on facilitating robots that cut grass and vegetation on 1,000+ acre utility-scale solar farms. The company’s secondary focus is sidewalk snow plowing.
The startup was founded in October 2019 by CEO Tim Lichti, CTO Mohamed H. Ahmed, Machine Design Lead Spencer Kschesinski and Electrical Design Lead Adonis Mansour. Lichti, Kschesinski and Mansour all attended the University of Waterloo together and then got to know Ahmed during their first year. The team originally planned to develop a robotic cutting solution for sports fields, but kept hearing from landscapers that cutting 1,000+ acre utility-scale solar installations was a challenging job that could use a modern solution.
The team decided it would be their mission to create a solution that could sustainably cut grass in a controlled environment. Swap Robotics was aware that solar vegetation cutting comes with its challenges, as it requires a unique type of cutting deck that is able to get underneath solar panels, and recognized that a robotic solution could address the problem.
“Right now, there are a couple of main challenges when cutting all of the vegetation in solar fields,” Lichti told TechCrunch in an interview. “The way it’s done is unsustainable. It’s done by gasoline or diesel-powered equipment, so there’s obviously a big carbon footprint there. There’s also a high cost from gasoline and diesel itself. The equipment is also going through rough terrain, so there’s a lot of equipment breakdown and costs associated with that. Since what we’re doing is 100% electric, it’s a lot more sustainable. There are also way fewer parts, so it’s not going to break down nearly as often.”
The robots have built-in hydraulics that move the grass cutting blades and the snow plow attachment. The attachments have a “quick swap” system, hence the name Swap Robotics, to make it easier and quicker to switch attachments. The robots’ batteries can also be swapped in five minutes, which allows for nearly 24/7 operation. The robots can also hold more than 1,000 pounds.
Within 60 days of debuting its robots in mid-2022, Swap Robotics had over $9 million of signed agreements for solar vegetation cutting.
Swap Robotics says it has developed the world’s first 100% electric cutting deck to reach the grass and vegetation underneath solar panels. The company also says it has developed the world’s first 100% electric “rough cut” deck that can easily cut down vegetation up to two-inches in diameter.
Lichti says Swap Robotics currently has several robots in commercial operation in Texas, but is unable to disclose which companies are currently using the robots. The startup is also in the midst of releasing a batch of 10 new robots and has ordered supplies for the next batch of 10 robots. The company anticipates additional sales in the future as a result of its new relationship with SOLV Energy.
As for the company’s business model, Swap Robotics charges a price per acre. Lichti says the model is convenient because customers are already familiar with paying a price per acre for grass cutting done by humans. The price per acre can vary depending on factors such as the size of the site, frequency of cuts and the terrain. The startup’s goal is to provide customers with 15% to 20% in savings when compared to their current cutting costs per acre.
The startup also announced that it received an investment from SOLV Energy, the largest utility-scale solar building company in the United States, but is unable to disclose the amount. Lichti says the funding is part of its pre-Series A round that it plans to close at the end of October. A large portion of the investment will go toward commercialization of the startup’s robots. The company plans to ramp up operations to have dozens of robots in service. In addition, some parts of the investment will be used for capital expenditure.
Prior to this investment, Swap Robotics raised $3 million in the three years after its launch from angel investors and SOSV. The funding was used to get Swap Robotics’ initial batch of a dozen robots into commercial operation. The investment was also used for software, mechanical and electrical development.
Swap Robotics plans to have a larger Series A round in 2023.
“Long term, we would love Swap Robotics to be an outdoor robotics platform for work,” Lichti said. “We’ve developed a form factor that is compact, extremely strong and robust and has a built-in hydraulics system that can have dozens of different use cases. I think this makes it an ideal platform for heavy use cases, especially those that sometimes may be seasonal.”
Lichti reiterated that the startup’s main focus will largely be on solar vegetation, and that the potential for its additional use cases is part of its longer term vision. As for what these use cases could look like, Lichti noted that the robots could potentially be used for street sweeping or reforestation efforts.