Mowing a Path to Greener Solar Farms

Tim Lichti and Spenser Kschesinski are two of Swap Robotics' co-founders. | Photo by Mike Strathdee

Swap Robotics makes machines that do large scale grass and vegetation maintenance.

Tim Lichti’s vision for Swap Robotics goes beyond generating profits and creating jobs. “It gives a great sense of meaning, what we’re doing, in that the work can hopefully make clean energy more affordable and lead to a world with more clean energy,” said Lichti, the company’s co-founder and CEO. Swap, based in Kitchener, Ontario, makes robots that can cut grass and clear snow. The company’s current focus is on cutting grass at large solar farms.

Swap’s business model is based on leasing robots as a service. Lichti started a residential grass-cutting firm while in university. He grew that business to several hundred customers in a few cities by the second year. He majored in history but decided that the business world would be more suitable for him than teaching. “I think I’ve always had that entrepreneurial streak. When I was a kid, I had a lemonade stand, snow shoveling for neighbors, that kind of thing.”

Living in Waterloo, he was in- fluenced by the changes Blackberry was bringing to the business world with its innovative smartphones, years before Apple introduced the iPhone. “The writing was on the wall, that this technology was going to change how businesses function. It would be possible to manage mobile operations and mobile businesses better.” He recognized that people could submit their timesheets from their phones. That helped him to better understand how long workers took at different job sites. But that didn’t mean he knew how to code or make the app that would replace paper-based timesheets. Eventually, he worked with some contractors and got some investment capital. Lichti learned by doing, starting several tech companies over a few years.

None of those firms reached critical mass. He realized that others had beaten him to the larger contracts. However, Stanford University learned about his product and ended up using it for its staff. That connection led Lichti to do some custom software projects for the university. Then an encounter with a vice president of Carnegie Mellon University led to a conversation about a future where robots would bring things to people. The person asked Lichti if he could develop a salt-brining robot. Lichti then asked some snow contractors if they would find such a product useful. They responded no. But they told Lichti that winter sidewalk clearing contracts were a “pain in the butt” due to the difficulty of finding workers willing to get up in the middle of the night for the job.

That conversation led Lichti to start a company that was originally called Top Hat Robotics, in late 2019. Its original plan was to use robots to clear sidewalks in the winter and to cut grass at sports fields in the summer. While attending a lawn and tech conference, company staff repeatedly heard that huge, 1,000-acre, and larger solar panel installations were a maintenance headache for their owners. Con- trolling grass and other vegetation was said to be the largest single maintenance expense at solar farms.

The idea of tackling this problem appealed to Lichti’s team for a few reasons. Solar farms are fenced in. Operating robots within the enclosures poses less risk to robots than clearing snow and having to cope with unpredictable human drivers. Second, most solar installations have single-axis trackers. Once the problem of cutting close to panels while avoiding cables or other obstacles is solved and mapped out, maintaining an entire park is “like building with Lego,” Lichti said. Staff map out a few arrays in a solar farm using a surveyor stick. Then they use custom software to produce the pattern for the rest of the facility.

The size of the solar farms and the swappable, rechargeable batteries that are used to power the quiet, electric robots means that they can be used “as close to 24 (hours a day), seven (days a week) as possible.” Drivelines and wiring under panels around I-beams require a special cutting deck, he said. The cutting decks on Swap robots can be offset up to six feet to get underneath panels and around poles. The robots’ massive cutting blades can cut through vegetation up to an inch in diameter.

When the ground at a site is very wet, cutting can be challenging, Lichti said. Swap can use retrofittable tracks analogous to tank treads on its robots to manage this problem. The robots’ batteries will run for between four and 10 hours, depending on the thickness of the vegetation being cut. The batteries can recharge within 2.5 to three hours. Each robot is equipped with two sets of batteries, allowing for close to continuous operation.

“Long-term, our 20-year vision is to be the world’s number one work equip- ment platform. Helping the world transition from diesel and gas-powered equipment to electric.”

— Tim Lichti, CEO and co-founder, Swap Robotics

Two trends support Lichti’s confidence in a steadily growing market for Swap’s products. Solar power and battery storage will be responsible for 81 percent of new generation capacity in the US this year, he said. Second, some jurisdictions are banning the use of gas-powered lawn equipment. “The world’s going in that direction.” Renu Robotics is currently the only competitor in the market niche Swap is pursuing. Swap is beating Renu on many aspects, Lichti said. “We’re in really good competitive shape.”
Swap Robotics’ machines cost about $100,000 each. Lichti hopes that within two to three years, each machine will return its investment within two months of being put in operation. Each robot could last up to 10 years, he said.

Swap offers customers contracts that save them money compared to conventional maintenance. Those forms of maintenance require human machine operators and machines that need to be regularly refilled with gas or diesel. Lichti is confident that within 18 months, Swap’s products will generate 70 percent gross profit margins. Swap has raised $7.5 million US in investment capital. Investors include SOLV Energy, one of the largest solar farm operators in the US. “We probably will be doing another (fundraising) round fairly soon.”

Lichti wants to raise another $2-$3 million in the coming months to build more robots and advance growth. Within a year, Swap could use another $10 to $20 million to fuel future growth. The company has 35 staff and is aiming for profitability in mid-2025. Swap had about $900,000 Canadian in revenue in 2023 and projects 300 to 600 percent growth this year. “We’re going up against people (for contracts) with riding mowers and skid steerers, and we’re winning the jobs,” he said.

Lichti expects to hire more staff soon, primarily “chaperones” who physically oversee the installation of robots at new locations. Swap has received $9 million in contracts to date. Much of this has come from a solar vegetation-cutting firm that is also among Swap’s investors. Ninety percent of sales have been in the US, particularly in Florida and Texas. Solar already supplies five percent of the power flowing into the Texas grid. That will triple to 15 percent within a few years, Lichti said. He has ambition goals for Swap, aiming for $100 million in revenue within three years. Once the company hits that milestone, it will turn some of its attention back to using robots to clear sidewalk snow. It is also considering other applications, such as attachments for solar panel laying and tree planting.

By the time Swap hits that sales level, there will be another $1 billion of market opportunity in the US solar farm sector due to growth in the solar industry, he said. Swap has filed for two patents on its technology and has been accepted into a government patent program. Lichti expects the firm to file more patent applications after its next funding round. Robotics is like a decathlon for startups, he said. “You have to be good at everything.” Swap hopes to have a trimmer attachment commercially ready to do weed whacking within the next year.

Lichti grew up in the Mennonite faith. He attended Rockway Mennonite Collegiate for high school and then Winnipeg’s Canadian Mennonite University. He values the sense of community and calls to social justice that he learned in those settings. “I find that really satisfying, for me personally. Folks here at the company really align with that vision as well. Our mission is to make outdoor work equipment sustainable. Long-term, our 20-year vision is to be the world’s number one work equipment platform. Helping the world transition from diesel and gas-powered equipment to electric.”

“Also, it’s just personally for me, it’s just a lot of fun.” All staff are shareholders in Swap. “I see that as one of the biggest factors in why we can move so quickly. We’re not going to allow ourselves to be acquired. We’re going the distance.” After its next fundraising round, the company plans to reserve the SWAP stock ticker for a time when the business could become publicly traded. That would only happen once Swap has several hundred million dollars in revenue, Lichti said.

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