Motorists making their way along Interstate 77 recently spotted an unusual sight.
They might have expected to see road crews working on the side of the road on a summer day, but the mowing unit working on the interstate last week included a prominent, non-human member.
Dixie Lawn Service of Kings Mountain, N.C., the company that contracts with the York County office of the S.C. Department of Transportation for roadside mowing, deployed its new remote-controlled lawn mower, a 2,500-pound device that combines the features of a riding mower with the operating principles of a toy car.
The mower, manufactured by Alamo, can cut grass on steep curves, while a workman in a yellow vest safely operates the device by handheld remote from level ground.
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“This is the safest way to do it,” said Billy Lingerfelt, the area supervisor for Dixie Lawn Service. “If you’ve got an operator in a machine (on such an embankment) and it rolls over, he could get hurt.”
Called a TRAXX RF, the remote-controlled mower is a fairly new device in the lawn care industry. Dixie has only been using the $80,000 piece of equipment in the field for two weeks.
Motorists noticed the mower for several days last week, as contractors used it to cut the grass along I-77 from the Chester County line to the Dave Lyle Boulevard exit in Rock Hill.
The mower is deployed to handle jobs considered too difficult for a person. If someone on a riding mower can’t safely ride into some culverts, the work has to be done by a larger crew of contract workers wielding weed-eaters.
“It saves a lot of time,” Lingerfelt said. “I used to have 10 guys, and now I can just use one person with a remote control.”
So far, the remote-controlled mower is “doing good work,” he said, although for a part of this week the TRAXX went into the shop to get a leaky pump fixed.
These kinds of unmanned mowers are still relatively new, at least as far as anyone in road maintenance locally can remember.
“It might have been in existence for a while, but this is the first time we’ve seen it,” said Mike Bagley with York County’s S.C. DOT office.
Dixie Lawn Service plans to use its mower on jobs throughout the Carolinas, to reach under outdoor billboards and other hard-to-reach places that workers would have to clear by hand, or where the mower can provide a more nimble touch.
“We don’t want to tear up some of these slopes with a heavier tractor,” Lingerfelt said.
Because it provides so many advantages, if the TRAXX mower proves its effectiveness over time, drivers might see the strange-looking gizmo more and more often.
Bagley says Dixie is in the second year of a five-year contract to mow York County’s primary and secondary DOT roads, and Lingerfelt says he would consider adding another remote-controlled mower to the company’s fleet.
At some point, DOT might even purchase a remote-controlled mower for jobs the agency handles itself.
“We could use it,” Bagley said. “But with money as tight as it is, that would be way down the road.”
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062