COURSE CARE
Robots, Drones, GPS: New Technology Is Transforming Course Care October 16, 2018 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By George Waters, USGA

Robotic putting green mowers and other exciting new technologies are changing golf course maintenance. (Joshua C.F. Smith)

 

Golf may be deeply rooted in tradition, but that doesn’t mean the game and the courses we play haven’t changed over time. Golf is continually evolving, and new technology is a driving force in that process.

This is especially true when it comes to golf course maintenance. Better mowers, new grasses and improved irrigation systems have transformed playing conditions and the innovation shows no signs of slowing down. Today’s superintendents use an amazing array of new technology to improve playability and manage resources better than ever before.

USGA agronomist Brian Whitlark works with golf facilities throughout the western U.S. and sees new technology having a big impact.

“In the West, many courses are focusing on technology that can help save water and labor because we have a scarce supply of both,” said Whitlark. “In other parts of the country, reducing the pesticide budget might be a bigger priority. Regardless of the challenge, there is new technology that can help.”

La Rinconada Country Club in Los Gatos, Calif., is located near the heart of Silicon Valley, so it should come as no surprise that utilizing new technology is a way of life for superintendent Kevin Breen.

“Golf courses are facing tighter budgets and it’s increasingly difficult to find and retain qualified staff,” said Breen. “In addition, water, fuel and other resources are getting more expensive. Technology helps us deliver the best possible product while managing costs and doing our part to conserve critical resources.”

Optimizing water use is one area where new technology has had a big impact at La Rinconada. Breen and his staff use sophisticated irrigation control software and portable moisture meters to help them water with great precision. Recently, they added a new high-tech tool to their arsenal – a drone.

“We started using a drone equipped with specialized cameras and sensors to improve our scouting,” said Breen. “The drone automatically flies the same route over the course every time, gathering temperature and turf performance data. Then we download digital maps from that day’s flight to guide our watering and maintenance plans. The imagery allows us to see patterns and identify irrigation issues we might otherwise have missed – that helps us save water and maintain better playing conditions.”

The drone isn’t the only interesting new technology that’s improving course maintenance at La Rinconada. Breen is also using a robotic putting green mower.

“We have a noise restriction near our practice facility that prevents us from operating gas-powered equipment before a certain hour,” said Breen. “I looked into various electric mower options because they are much quieter and finally I decided to try a robotic mower. There was so much to do at the practice facility each morning, I felt like the added productivity would be a huge benefit, and the robot was quiet enough to operate without violating the noise restriction.”

GPS technology makes spray applications more efficient, helping superintendents deliver better playing conditions while conserving resources.

 

A staff member brings the robot to the practice area where it mows each of the practice greens entirely on its own. While the robot mows, the staff member cleans up debris, rakes bunkers, repairs ball marks and performs a range of other detail-oriented tasks.

“I’ve seen a huge improvement in presentation and conditioning where we’ve used the robot because the staff is able to accomplish so much more,” said Breen. “Where they might have been hurrying to mow an area before play arrived, now they can take their time and make sure everything is in good shape for the day. It’s made a big difference.”

Whitlark is excited about the new technology he sees when he visits La Rinconada and other early adopters. “What Kevin is doing with drones and robotics is just the beginning,” says Whitlark. “As these technologies improve and become more affordable and versatile, their use is only going to expand.”

At Hidden Creek Golf Club in Egg Harbor, N.J., superintendent Clark Weld is using the GPS technology we rely on for directions to optimize his maintenance practices.

“I used to work on a farm, and I know a lot of folks in the agricultural industry,” said Weld. “They’ve been using GPS-guided equipment for years to increase their productivity and precision and have seen huge benefits. I felt like that same technology could help us on the golf course.”

Weld had two sprayers outfitted with GPS systems that control each individual spray nozzle to confine applications only to the target areas, eliminating skips and overlaps. The GPS system also controls the steering, which reduces the risk of human error and saves time and money.

“Our annual spraying costs are typically 15-20 percent less since we started using the GPS-guided sprayers,” said Weld. “That amounts to thousands of dollars each year, which is a huge savings.”

Weld was so pleased with the GPS-guided steering on his sprayers that he has started using the system on fairway mowers as well. The GPS steering ensures that mowing passes are made with minimal overlap and that no areas are missed, saving a significant amount of time. The staff are also able to mow in low-light or darkness without any issues because the steering is automatic.

Dave Oatis, director of the USGA Green Section’s Northeast Region, has consulted for years at Hidden Creek, the host site of the 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship, and is very impressed with the positive impact of GPS technology.

“I believe that use of this technology is certain to become widespread within a decade. In the right circumstances, the initial investment can pay for itself within a few years,” said Oatis.

While new technology like robotic mowers and GPS-guided sprayers provide a glimpse into the future of golf course maintenance, Oatis is quick to mention that more affordable new technology can still have a big impact.

“Lots of cutting-edge technology is still in the early phases of development and can be very expensive,” said Oatis, “but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t new technology available to benefit almost any golf course. For example, portable moisture meters and mobile applications can have a big impact at relatively little cost.”

“A golf course doesn’t need to have a huge maintenance budget to benefit from new technology,” said Oatis. “They just need an open mind and a desire to do things better.”

George Waters is a manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.