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Don't like the greens? Take it up with the robot.

October 17, 2011

Back in college, my summer job was mowing greens at Oakmont Golf Club in Santa Rosa, Calif. What I do now is not far removed from what I did then. The romantic in me still loves being on the golf course at sunrise. My meticulous side still appreciates clean lines of fresh cut grass. To this day, I'll walk the perimeter of a green and mentally critique another mower's attention to detail. But as Ron Whitten reports, times are changing:


Sure took us long enough for life to imitate art, or rather, slapstick.But that was on a trade show floor. It wasn't until last week that I finally got to see the real thing (reel thing?) in action. Precise Path had arranged for its mower, which it calls the RG3, to be field-tested at Hawk's Landing Golf Club in Orlando. As I watched one RG3 quietly (and yes, precisely) mow a real golf green, it struck me how much the contraption looked like a little green Martian wearing a pith helmet, very much like the pith helmet I wore when raking bunkers on the Country Club of Lincoln, Nebr., 40 years ago.Turns out the machine's pith helmet contains a lot more intelligence than mine ever did. It's actually a Local Positioning Module that houses ultrasonic transducers and an infrared receiver which combine to control the mower's path and direction. Four Local Positioning Beacons are placed around the green to provide predetermined instructions on directions and distance of each mowing pass. A fifth beacon provides instructions on the all-important "clean-up cut," in which the RG3 mows the entire perimeter of the green.

It is a remarkable mower, moving at about the same pace as a riding triplex greens mower, cutting to crisp, uniform height, and making only a slight noise, like the whine of a golf cart going down an incline. What especially impressed me was how it changed directions without damaging any turf. With a conventional walking or riding greens mower, the twisting action of a turn can damage the collar of a green. I've seen crew members rushing back and forth across a green, laying down a sheet of plywood, or hard plastic or a carpet scrap, on a collar ahead of the mower to protect the turf.

In contrast, the RG3 simply reverses its direction by gently turning on a front roller while a back roller lifts and rotates 180 degrees, doing no damage to the grass beneath it in the process. See my short film clip of a RG3 in operation:

Okay, so we've eliminated one employee who would otherwise operate the mower, as well as one or two kids who would lay the plywood ahead of it. In this era of high unemployment, is a robotic greens mower really a good idea?

Yes, says Sean O'Brien, the Director of Grounds at Hawk's Landing, who has been using four RG3s for nine months, and presently mows every green with them. He's not into job elimination, he says, but job reallocation. It still takes four workers to run the robotic mowers. Each man must transport a robot from green to green and place the four beacons around the green. But while the RG3 is doing the mowing, the crewman can change the cup in the green, rake the bunkers around the green and do other clean-up work. Meanwhile, three other employees who had also previously hand-mowed greens have been freed up to mow the rough. "We have a lot of rough," says O'Brien, "and until now, we've never been able to keep up with it."

The direction of cut can be programmed to change every day, says Precise Path spokesman Chris Gray, a former superintendent twice honored by Golf Digest with Environmental Leaders in Golf awards. Plus, the clean-up cut will never vary, so greens won't shrink, as often happens when humans mow around a perimeter. Gray also pointed out that, by switching reels, the RG3 can also verti-cut, spike, brush or roll a green.

Theoretically, the RG3 could do any of those tasks on a moonless night, but until Precise Path figures out a way to program its robots to move from green to green without human help, that's not really practical.

The big question, of course, is if Jerry Lewis were to appear on the horizon, would the RG3s take off in pursuit of him? Not a chance, says Gray. Each robot has built-in motion sensors that cause it to automatically stop and raise its mower blade if any object (be it man or squirrel) approaches it. (The film clip demonstrates that.)

Right now, the biggest obstacle the RG3 faces is its price, in excess of $30,000. But Precise Path is planning lease options that could more easily fit into most golf course budgets.  So is this a fad or the future? Too early to tell, but my gut tells me that if a conservative Congress were to institute an extremely restrictive immigration policy and fund an expanded immigration police force, I could see a lot of clubs employing robotic mowers.

I'll go farther than that. Someday down the road, little green Martians with pith helmets will be routinely cutting fairways as well as greens, and will be especially useful in cutting hillsides of rough that are so steep that humans can't do it without risking injury. Bunkers, however, will continue to be raked by people. The only precision needed is to get out of them.

--Ron Whitten

(You can follow Ron on Twitter *@RonWhittenGD*; follow me *@Matt_Ginella*.)