Using technology to stay a cut above

Corey McAvoy of Conestoga Contracting operated the remote-controlled slope mower to create a service trail at the Waterloo wastewater treatment plant. [Veronica Reiner / The Observer]

If you think mowing your lawn is a hassle, you should try tending to kilometre after kilometre of the worst kind overgrowth, some of it extending up steep banks or along treacherous watercourses. That’s where a new specialized mower comes into play, with the potential to keep workers safe while racking up big savings.

For Elmira’s Conestoga Contracting Group, a remote controlled slope mower capable of working on angles of up to 60 degrees is just the thing to add into their service mix. It is primarily used to clear steep embankments of obstacles, including sewage lagoons, highway ditches, and solar farms.

The equipment is very rare in Ontario, with the only other owners in Ontario being in Ottawa and the Highway 407 consortium.

“Safety is a big thing in every industry right now,” said Chaise Ireland, president of the Elmira landscape contracting firm. “Instead of putting people in harm’s way, and having costly crews of people out in smash trucks and all these other different pieces of equipment, we decided to purchase that; we found there was a need for it in the industry. We’re one of the only people in Ontario with these devices.”

Ireland says the remote-controlled equipment can take out the complications of using several conventional tractors/mowers to clear embankments at the side of the highways. Instead, the new approach saves all the trouble by using a single machine. An operator uses a remote control to steer it from up to 600 feet away.

“It’s a beast of a machine; it cuts better and works more efficiently,” said Corey McEvoy of Conestoga Contracting. “It’s like an all-in-one machine.”

Known as a Flailbot, the unit costs approximately $110,000 for the slope mower. Attachments such as a forestry head, flail mowers or a trencher can cost up to $30,000. Conestoga Contracting had their model shipped from Italy.

“We’re in a high-tech city, so we need to innovate and use the latest and greatest technology to make sure we’re on top of the game,” said Ireland.

While it may initially be reminiscent of a lawnmower, there are few similarities. It can’t work on the same terrain as a lawnmower.

“If you take it to say, for example, a golf course, it will actually do damage,” explained Ireland. “Because we have what’s called a high grip track on it, and that high grip track actually embeds itself in the turf. If you put that on nice grass, you’re going to make the nice grass very lumpy, so this has a specialized purpose.”

Moreover, it’s powerful enough to take down trees.

That’s why those who operate the machinery need to go through a training program.

“You cannot be careless with it,” said Ireland. “You have to go slow enough when you’ve encountered a very thick bush to ensure that you’re mulching it all up. Otherwise, you can do some damage to your equipment and just not do a good quality job.”

Conestoga Contracting is looking to include another attachment once it becomes available – a GPS control valve. This would give the machine somewhat of a memory, allowing it to do jobs on its own.

“That is something we are working towards,” said Ireland. “We want to be able to cut something once or twice and have the machine learn it. And have it repeat the same machine that we’ve done. So if we encounter a hazard the first time we cut, like let’s say a piece of concrete in the long grass. Then it’s going to learn that next time because we would have backed up the machine, moved around it, and marked a hazard.”

The crew has had a decent amount of experience with the machine, using it about 25 times at this point. It takes the danger out of particular jobs, such as that of a wastewater pond embankment.

“They have sewage lagoons, where our sewage would go into and sit,” said Ireland. “That would traditionally be done by a person that would go and trim the embankment, going into the sewage lagoon, and if that person tripped and fell they would fall into a very hazardous situation. So this machine takes the person right out of the mix.”

Those looking to avoid another facet of lawn maintenance can chalk another one up for the age of automation.

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