By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
In the process of solving a problem in his day job, Matt Layne, Turf Manager for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), also co-invented a technology with a Knoxville solar company that holds great commercial potential.
“This campus has a lot of unique areas,” the Columbia, TN native told us in a recent interview where he described the challenge that the university faced. “Some (places) are hard to get to and some are unsafe” from a mowing perspective.
As Layne, who is nearing completion of his M.S. in Plant Science, explained, he wanted a solution that preserved the carbon sequestration process that occurs when clippings drop onto the soil and, at the same time, also reduced the carbon released into the atmosphere by gasoline-powered mowers.
“The best solution that I found was to go electric,” Layne said, but noted another hurdle in that strategy: lack of electricity in many areas that were being mowed. How do you deploy electric mowers where there is no power? The solution that he thought would address the need was to use robotic mowers powered by solar.
Well, as you might imagine, that also presented its own challenge. As Layne started searching in the summer of 2019 for a supplier of solar-powered robotic mowers, he discovered that there was a void in that space.
“I brought-up the idea to a company that has just picked-up a line of robotic mowers,” he told us. The company was actually the manufacturer of a robotic mower that UTK had just purchased to mow an area behind the Art and Architecture Building.
“They had no interest in my idea,” Layne said, so he got on the internet and searched for solar companies. One name that popped-up was Solar Alliance, located in South Knoxville. The company’s Vice President for Commercial Solar is Harvey Abouelata, a long-time player in the sector.
“I called Harvey, explained the need, and we met the same day with John Hamilton, Solar Alliance’s General Manager,” Layne said. Over the course of the next few months, the trio came-up with the design for something called the Powershed. It is a solar-powered charging station for robotic mowers, and the initial model was first deployed in Spring 2020.
“We’ve changed a lot of things about it since the first version,” Layne adds. Along the way, he disclosed his role in the invention to the UT Research Foundation (UTRF) which subsequently filed a provisional patent and also executed an exclusive, worldwide commercial license with Solar Alliance (see news release here).
“Finalizing the licensing agreement for Powershed allows us to move forward aggressively with product sales discussions and longer-term partnership opportunities,” Myke Clark, Solar Power’s Chief Executive Officer, said in the news release. Ownership of the intellectual property is evenly divided between UT and Solar Alliance.
“Powershed provides an incredible opportunity to integrate solar power into various technology with the goal of normalizing clean energy solutions,” Abouelata says. “Powershed allows you to further minimize your carbon footprint when using in combination with a robotic mower. By introducing Powershed to the market, we are one step closer to making clean energy easily accessible for the general public. This project has proven the effectiveness of clean energy and shows the positive environmental benefits that can come from it.”
Layne agrees with Abouelata about the great potential for Powershed, citing the growing concerns about climate change and the increasing interest in products that enhance sustainability. He also notes that residents of many European countries now use robotic mowers for their lawns that are considerably smaller than those in the U.S.
“Robotics will increase in efficiency by 5X or more in the next couple of years,” Layne adds, noting that fact will increase the size of a yard, golf course, or athletic field that can be mowed by a robotic device.