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San Francisco Now Mows Its Grass with $50,000 'Lawn Drones'

And why buy one when you can buy two at twice the price?


Claims that San Francisco is tech's garden of earthly delights ring more than a bit hollow when considering municipal government. City employees manage to send emails on up to seven different platforms, which, amazingly, simultaneously duplicates and obscures who can send to whom. Police stumbled across email only in 2011. It has taken decades and millions of dollars for the city to not implement a comprehensive system tracking accused criminals through the justice system. 

And yet, when it comes to the latest in remote-controlled lawn-mowing technology, San Francisco is leading the way. This footage was captured in Alamo Square Park yesterday; that's a Recreation and Parks Department employee piloting an ILD 02 Spider Mower over the verdant slopes.

Rec and Park confirmed it owns two of these lawn drones, which it obtained for a cool $100,000 to trim slopes too precarious for a human being to drive a riding mower over. (This, by the way, is five times the amount the city spent on nine actual drones, one of which was, like anything left in a car in San Francisco, stolen). 

The city did not respond to our query regarding the thought process behind spending $100,000 on two lawnmowers. But Jim Sherman, the Santa Clara lawnmower man who sold these beauties to the city, was happy to weigh in. 

"I've been in this business for a long time. My family started it in the 1960s. Whenever the city would go out for a bid on a commercial riding mower, we'd take it to Dolores Park for demonstrations," he says. "We would have to modify the mowers to get a very low center of gravity. I'd bring them there and show them how to operate them. But it was so steep, I didn't have the balls to do it myself. No matter what you do, when the turf gets wet, there's very little to hold that machine on the hill." 

Sherman says he's had calls from half a dozen nearby municipalities. But only San Francisco has pulled the trigger and bought a remote-control spider mower. The machines can handle 50-degree banks "steeper than you and I can walk up" and "you can sit in a chair and watch it; it's like playing a videogame." 

The sticking point, Sherman says, is that the Spider Mower is to lawnmowing what the Spinning Jenny was to looms. It does a hell of a lot more than a bunch of gardeners or weavers could do—and, potentially, puts a hell of a lot of gardeners or weavers out of business. 

"They replace 15 men with weedeaters," Sherman claims. "If you took those 15 men and put them to work somewhere else, that's substantial." But what if you don't have anywhere else to put them? Well, that's a problem: "When you take 15 guys off a hillside and have one guy sitting in a chair, the union doesn't like that." 

This, he says, is why other cities have been reluctant to go all in on unmanned terrestrial vehicles. "The city of Sunnyvale absolutely loved the machine," he says. "We did an overpass in the city. On one side, we had a dozen guys with weedeaters. And one guy on the other side. And we smoked 'em. That was six months ago. Basically, they said they don't want the mower." 

Luckily for Sherman, then, San Francisco made up for its neighbor to the south by not only buying two top-of-the-line Spider Mowers, but piling on enough accessories to add around $20,000 to the final price tag. 

California's future may not have much room for lawns. But, in this city, our future will feature remote-control lawnmowers. 


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