Robotics on the range

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An Illinois-based company known for handheld equipment prepares to unveil autonomous solutions to the North American golf market.

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October 30, 2019

ECHO Robotics is introducing an autonomous mower and range picker to the North American golf market.
© guy cipriano

Trimmers, blowers, power washers, generators, spreaders and robots.

ECHO Incorporated introduced a slew of new products during a media preview event Oct. 4 at its Lake Zurich, Illinois, headquarters. The products poised to spark the most interest in the golf market, though, stand out for what they don’t require – an operator.

ECHO, under its ECHO Robotics division, will become the latest company offering autonomous solutions to the North American golf market when it releases the RP-1200 range picker this fall. The RP-1200 joins the TM-2000 autonomous mower, giving ECHO Robotics a duo directed toward helping golf facilities handle the increasing volume of practice range maintenance. The range could offer a gateway to automation for superintendents, a group curious about robotic possibilities yet still leery of implementing operator-free technology on playing surfaces.

Golf Course Industry asked superintendents in its 2019 State of the Industry whether they are utilizing autonomous mowers. None of the 155 superintendents who answered the question indicated they use the technology on their respective courses, although it should be noted a few North American facilities deploy Cub Cadet’s RG3 on greens. A follow-up question asked how likely superintendents are to use autonomous mowers on greens, fairways and rough, with 57 percent answering “never” or “not likely” in all three areas.

The survey was distributed last December and didn’t include a question about the likelihood of using automation on a driving range. Since the release of the survey, the labor crunch affecting golf facilities has intensified. The U.S. unemployment rate dipped to 3.5 percent in October and thousands of superintendents spent significant periods in 2019 without a fully staffed crew. Conversations about robotics in golf and sports turf expanded earlier this year after ECHO Robotics unveiled the TM-2000 at the Sports Turf Managers Association Conference and Expo and John Deere announced an agreement to develop autonomous mowers for both markets with Netherlands-based Precision Makers before the Golf Industry Show.

ECHO Robotics national sales manager Jake Vollbeer provides a demonstration of the TM-2000 at a media preview event last month.

ECHO Robotics will make its GIS debut in 2020 in Orlando. ECHO handheld products can be found in maintenance facilities across the country, but the RP-1200 is believed to be the company’s first golf-specific product. “It’s definitely exciting and a new adventure for us,” ECHO president Tim Dorsey says.

Vice president of robotics Joe Fahey and national robotics sales manager Jake Vollbeer are among the members of a team responsible for introducing the technology to superintendents and distributors. Demonstrations of the RP-1200 and TM-2000 working in tandem have commenced on select North American courses. Finding early adopters, Vollbeer adds, represents one of the company’s biggest challenge as it wades into a new market.

“Our internal knowledge at ECHO has grown dramatically over the last six months,” Vollbeer says. “It’s a continual educational process. We are trying to come up with different methodologies to educate the end user and the dealer, because things change very quick. The product that we have in front of us today isn’t anything like it was a year ago. It was completely different.”

The RP-1200 and TM-2000 were developed by Belgium-based robotics manufacturer Belrobotics, a company purchased by ECHO’s parent company Yamabaiko. Both products are available to greenkeepers throughout Europe, where automated mowers on sports fields and university grounds are common sights.

“We really believe this is the future,” Fahey says. “This has been proven in Europe. The Europeans are very much in tune with robotics. The number of robotic mowers sold in Europe is about ready to surpass traditional mowers. The market is huge there. North America is starting to figure it out.”

ECHO Robotics officials showed a video at the media preview event describing how Naxhelet Golf Club in Belgium maintains its range. The course’s system is fully automated, meaning balls are collected, cleaned and dispensed without human involvement. The video also illustrated how the TM-2000 works alongside the RP-1200, which holds around 280 balls. The TM-2000 features five blades, with height of cut capabilities ranging from ¾ of an inch to 4 inches. The mower can maintain up to six acres. The current version, Fahey says, doesn’t produce stripes.

“There are tradeoffs,” Fahey adds. “When you start mowing robotically, you are making a commitment to change. We all like stripes. But how about your grass looking like it was just mowed every single day? Would you be willing to have that tradeoff?”

Charging stations power the range picker and mower, and employees can monitor and control units via a mobile device or laptop. Once charged, the RP-1200 and TM-2000 work in a variety of conditions, including at night. Sonars alert the units of obstacles. Creating the infrastructure to operate the units requires installing wiring 2½ to 3 inches below the surface around a range.

“It starts with site selection,” Vollbeer says. “You go to the site and look for areas that we can’t go, like near a water feature. It’s then drawing a line in a plan, like an architectural plan where the wire is going to go, where the power is going to go, how do we get the power there. If the power is available and the site is good, it’s an afternoon to do the install. A ball drop can take a little more time depending how in-depth and complicated you want that ball drop to work.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s editor.




Tartan Talks No. 40

Druzisky

David Druzisky moved to Idaho before it became trendy, so he knows how to appreciate and utilize mountain views.

“Just let it happen,” he says. “Don’t mess it up.”

Druzisky joined the Tartan Talks podcast to describe his presence on an inland design island. Druzisky is the only ASGCA member based in Idaho. He moved to the Boise area in 2006 after beginning his career in Scottsdale, Arizona, another place where golf and majestic views intermingle.

The son of a golf course superintendent, Druzisky started his own firm in 1996. He was just 30 when he entered the ultra-competitive business. “I was probably too young and maybe naïve about it,” he says. “And it was probably a good thing because I didn’t realize the risk I was taking.”

To learn more about Druzisky’s background and work, enter bit.ly/DavidDruzisky into your web browser.




John Kinkead Sr. pictured with his son Scott Kinkead. John died last month after a long and innovative career leading Turfco. Scott and his brother George Kinkead are carrying on their father’s legacy by jointly operating the company.

Remembering John Kinkead

John Kinkead Sr., the longtime head of Minneapolis-based Turfco Manufacturing and one of the golf course and turf management industry’s great creators, died last month. He was 89.

Kinkead will be remembered by those in the industries he loved — notably golf and turf management — as an innovator and as a person whose perseverance set a tone for how Turfco continues to collaborate with its customers in products and services today.

It was in that innovative spirit that Kinkead, working closely with local golf superintendents in the Twin Cities, invented the first mechanized topdresser in 1961. Before then, topdressing in the industry consisted of slinging sand from shovels across greens and fairways. While still working at National Mower, the company founded in 1919 by his father, Robert, Kinkead spearheaded the introduction of numerous other turf innovations at Turfco. He also launched a company called Kinco.

Kinkead lived to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the family’s continuous contribution and joy in working in the golf industry. He also raised the company to international prominence as an inventive manufacturer of commercial-grade maintenance products for golf clubs, parks, agriculture, sports and landscaping, and held many patents.

Two of John’s sons, George and Scott, jointly operate Turfco.

“His legacy is with us every day,” Scott says. “He made being a good and honorable man, a dependable friend and loving father and respected business owner look so easy.”




© Brian Oar, Wynn Golf Club

DOLLARs (NO cENTS)

Sin City’s newest attraction boasts a big name (hello, Tom Fazio) and a bigger greens fee ($550?!) a chip shot from the Strip.

By Matt LaWell

Most of the first round of headlines about the new Wynn Golf Club, which opened last month in Las Vegas, has focused on its peak $550 greens fee, which, yes, sounds exorbitant compared to what most courses charge.

Consider, though, that the greens fee includes lithium battery-powered carts, caddies from a crew featuring more than a dozen current or former PGA pros, and four or five hours on the only course on the Strip — you can’t even play a round of putt-putt this close to the casinos — and it starts to feel almost like a bargain.

“And if you keep somebody from gambling for four-and-a-half hours,” says Brian Hawthorne, the executive director of golf operations, “we might be saving people money.”

Hawthorne joined a conference call last month with Tom Fazio, who partnered with his son, Logan, to reimagine a course he first designed almost 15 years ago. Fazio was Fazio, quipping about how he might have fired Logan if not for their familial bond, the “budget” he worked with (but not whether he came in under whatever that number might have been), and the great exaggerations of his retirement.

“That’s competition spreading rumors,” Fazio says. “Why would you retire from the business of designing golf courses? It’s easy, it’s fun, people pay you a lot of money and you work in great, exciting places for great people. Who would retire from that? Nobody. The only thing I retired from was going to meetings. I don’t go to meetings anymore because I don’t have enough time for meetings.”

Fazio talked plenty about the course, of course.

“Most of the time we’re trying to block the views of surrounding areas, we’re trying to block the views of buildings,” Fazio says. “But we’re in Las Vegas, we’re on the Strip, we have these magnificent structures all around us and this magnificent environment of buildings and fun and excitement. There’s no way to hide them.” So, he embraced the surroundings.

The new course succeeds the old Wynn Golf Club, which closed Dec. 17, 2017 after a dozen years. During an earnings call two months before he shuttered the course with plans to develop a Paradise Park — a luxury hotel and convention center partnered with beaches, boat rides, water skiing and ziplines — former Wynn Resorts chairman Steve Wynn said transitioning from golf to broader entertainment would result in “a tremendous uptick in the value of our surrounding real estate.” What good is a 130-acre course that brings in a reported $5 million in profit when every one of those acres is worth two or three times that amount? “I’ve got a billion and a half dollars of real estate under that golf course,” Wynn said back in 2005.

But then Wynn resigned in February 2018 amid a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations and the executive team realized the financial benefits of a golf course. “Not only did we notice we lost 16,000 rounds of golf out there — 70 percent of which were cash — but we lost probably $10 million to $15 million worth of domestic casino business,” Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox said on a 2018 earnings call.

The course might be key to future development, too. According to a recent profile of Wynn Resorts chairman Phil Satre published in The Nevada Independent, the company plans to develop on the 34-acre former New Frontier site it owns across the Strip from Wynn Las Vegas and Encore — and “getting the golf course back was critical to our positioning we have there,” Satre said.

For now, at least, “The idea was to incorporate not only the challenge from vegetation, but also relief and contour and framing and definition, and also some excitement in the terrain,” Fazio says. “We went from being a flat, narrow golf course to a rolling, elevated, framed setting.”

The course features Dominator Bentgrass greens, with Tifway II Bermudagrass and a seasonal ryegrass overseed on the rest of the turf — all under the eye of superintendent Jason Morgan, who received praise from Fazio.

“Every day during those hot summer months, those 100-plus degree days,” Morgan was “making sure the sprinklers were in the right position, making sure the spacing’s right,” Fazio says. “There’s so much detail that went into that course in a short space of time and Jason was the guy in the field making it happen.”

Oh, and about that $550 greens fee? “If you put the economics of everything involved in that, it’s really not a high price because of the value of that real estate, the value of what was spent to build it, the value to maintain it, the cost to maintain it in that location is extremely high,” Fazio says. “It’s shocking to me that a golf course exists in this location.”

Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.