Atlanta considers use of driverless lawn mowers, other tech for better service delivery

After initial investments, technology could save taxpayers in the long run

Timothy Colbert was mowing the slopes of an Atlanta water reservoir on a recent May morning, but it was considerably less work than the city’s public works field supervisor is used to.

That’s because instead of manually steering the lawn mower, Colbert controlled it from afar, with a remote control.

”It’s like playing a video game,” he said. “It’s just ideal for me…I want to know if it has an automatic mode.”

The city recently tested the robotic lawn mower (think yard Roomba) and is considering the purchase of three, at about $60,000 each. The mowers are just one of several technology-based tools that city officials think could help Atlanta deliver better service for less money.

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Public Works Commissioner Al Wiggins, Jr. said his department is in recovery mode, as they assess their solid waste fees to make critical decisions about staffing and equipment needs. The city just entered into a $19 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit challenging the fees.

At the same time, his department is seeking ways to increase productivity and cut costs by possibly using autonomous mowers, mobile cameras, and vehicle routing software — technology that will help turn Atlanta into a “smart city.”

“We want to provide timely and reliable services,” Wiggins said. “And we think technology is the best way for us to provide that level of consistency.”

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A few people work with a remote-controlled driverless lawnmower during a Department of Public Works and Watershed Management demonstration on Thursday, Mat 12, 2022. This new and innovative method of the department will work on mowing steep slopes, inclines, and hazardous terrain safely and efficiently. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A few people work with a remote-controlled driverless lawnmower during a Department of Public Works and Watershed Management demonstration on Thursday, Mat 12, 2022. This new and innovative method of the department will work on mowing steep slopes, inclines, and hazardous terrain safely and efficiently. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
A few people work with a remote-controlled driverless lawnmower during a Department of Public Works and Watershed Management demonstration on Thursday, Mat 12, 2022. This new and innovative method of the department will work on mowing steep slopes, inclines, and hazardous terrain safely and efficiently. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

RC Mowers Regional Sales Manager Sean Wirtz recently demonstrated his mowers for city employees at the Atlanta Water Lodge in Fulton County. He said the mowers keep workers away from road medians and steep inclines, among other hazardous areas.

Wiggins said the mowers could help Atlanta control vegetation at major thoroughfares twice a month, which would burden their staffing today because that would require four people for each job. The driverless mower only needs one operator, however, which would free up employees and resources for additional work.

A single automated mower costs between $57,950 and $62,950 depending on the model, according to a public works spokeswoman. Wiggins said the city would initially pilot three mowers to gauge their effectiveness.

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Old and new signs against illegal dumping on Alvin Drive NW and the surrounding area on October 20, 2015. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

Old and new signs against illegal dumping on Alvin Drive NW and the surrounding area on October 20, 2015. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

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Old and new signs against illegal dumping on Alvin Drive NW and the surrounding area on October 20, 2015. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

In the meantime, Wiggins said illegal dumping has stopped in three areas of the city where they installed cameras attached to small trailers. Public works typically records littering with utility pole cameras, but Wiggins said installing them is time consuming.

The mobile cameras can record, use flashing blue lights and audible messages to warn litterers, Wiggins said. Additionally, it offers real time footage through the Atlanta Police Department’s network.

The cameras cost $2,695.50 per month, but Wiggins said Atlanta is currently using them on a 30-day free trial.

One of the cameras is in City Councilman Jason Winston’s district. He called it an amazing deterrent to dumping.

“I’d love to figure out how to work with the Department of Public Works to be able to expand this program,” Winston said.

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A city of Atlanta garbage crew collects trash in 2012. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

A city of Atlanta garbage crew collects trash in 2012. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

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A city of Atlanta garbage crew collects trash in 2012. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

Finally, Wiggins said he wants to get routing software to obtain real time data about their vehicles in the field.

Atlanta has vehicles for recycling, solid waste and yard collection, as well as automated trucks that empty trash bins with a mechanical arm. But Wiggins said dense street parking hinders their ability to use certain vehicles in parts of the city.

Wiggins said the software would help them understand where to deploy certain vehicles. It would direct drivers who are unfamiliar with particular routes. He also said it would alert them to broken-down vehicles so they could deploy another.

The upfront cost of the software is $700,000, with an overall 3-year investment of nearly $1.2 million, according to public works. Wiggins told councilmembers he hopes to have legislation for purchase of the software next month.