SAN FRANCISCO - Brian Nettz pushes a button and watches "Bugs Bunny" get to work.
The robotic mower, an RG3 model by Cub Cadet Turf, drives along the fringe before finding the starting point of its mission - cutting and rolling an entire green at Presidio Golf Club without human interference.
Finding reliable labor has always been a major problem for Nettz, the superintendent at Presidio, a hilly public course in the heart of San Francisco. He was originally skeptical that an army of five robots could solve his problems. Now he can't envision mowing greens any other way.
"If you had asked me a couple years ago, I'd say 'There's no way a robot could do as good a job as a person can.. Maybe I'm old school," he said. "But now that I've had these things for a year, I can't see any other way to do it. They are the future of golf (course maintenance)."
The Presidio is the first course in the country to completely rely on robots to cut all its greens. It is one of at least a dozen or more golf courses in the United States and Canada - such as The California Club and La Rinconada Country Club in Silicon Valley - that have used the RG3 in some capacity, according to Tony Whelan, the sales and marketing director at Specialty Turf Products, a division of MTD Products, an Ohio company that owns Cub Cadet Turf as one of its many brands. This phenomenon isn't merely linked to the land of technology.
A new and improved model, the Infinicut RGX, will hit the market later this year. It could be ready to go mainstream. "We anticipate there will be hundreds of customers that we believe will use this system in under 10 years or 5 years," Whelan said. "Our only limiting factor might be (keeping up with) production. We've got a healthy pipeline of customers. There seems to be healthy demand."
The impact at Presidio
How each robot works is actually quite simple, considering the amazing technology. After pushing the start button, the operator places multiple beacons around the green. These beacons send sound waves back to the mower, helping to orient the machine. It is programmed to shut off if something gets in the way, like a golf ball, and won't enter pre-programmed "Keep Out" zones like bunkers. Flag sticks, however, need to be removed or they could be run over and damaged. Over time, the machines become "smarter", according to Nettz, learning the exact shape of each green they're programmed to cut.
Nettz wasn't the only person skeptical at first about the robots. He said members of maintenance staff were nervous about losing their jobs. Both Whelan and Nettz emphasized that's not the point of having automated greens mowers. While the robots mow the greens, the staff can focus their energy on other projects. While Bugs Bunny was cutting one green, a worker was hand-raking the greenside bunkers, a nice touch never offered before at Presidio.
Nettz credits the mowers for freeing up manpower to finish a bunker renovation project done in-house. The new bunkers, which would fit in on any Tom Doak or Coore & Crenshaw design, look fabulous with their jagged edges and scruffy collars.
"We get so much more done," Nettz said. "I have so much labor to reallocate, we are getting stuff done, small stuff that I've never had labor to do before. ... There is always something to do (maintenance wise) on a golf course."
His new workers started last May and have been affectionately nicknamed Goofy, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Daffy Duck and Toucan. They don't need benefits or complain about certain aspects of the job (pay grade, early hours) like some human employees might. After months of staff training and some trial and error, they do their job and do it very well.
The weight of the machines, roughly 600 pounds, rolls the greens at the same time they are cut. Nettz said all the greens can be cut and rolled by 8 a.m., something his staff could never previously accomplish.
"We get a lot of compliments (about the greens)," he said. "You can tell the quality of cut is much better than by hand."
The next generation
The new model should solve some of the limitations of the RG3, which Nettz said struggles with fog and noise interference from high winds, leaf blowers and other mowers. The Infinicut RGX will be guided by GPS coordinates, eliminating the need for the beacons, and be lithium-powered.
Whelan said the Infinicut RGX has incorporated the best traits of the Infinicut mower - which is used at Wimbledon (tennis), Real Madrid (soccer) and PNC Park of the Pittsburgh Pirates (baseball) - and the RG3, while being able to mow 10 percent faster with no limitations in green size, a big deal for more modern courses with large greens.
As with any new technology, cost will be an issue for many courses and determine how quickly the robots gain in popularity. Nettz said the Presidio leases the mowers, adding that it's money well spent. Whelan said clubs that purchase Infinicut RGX mowers should receive a return on their investment in less than three years.
Nettz isn't sure how other superintendents will embrace this technological revolution, but he's a believer.
“Superintendents as a whole are a pretty conservative bunch," he said. "Every mistake you make is for the whole world to see. It is not super cheap, but people only view the cost. They don’t see the re-allocation of manpower. That's where it makes the most sense."
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