Sunday, 9 December 2018

More Crazy Robot Mower Ideas

Recent discussions on twitter have drummed up a lot of interesting ideas about robots and a lot of hate too!

I love it!

For the haters or skeptics think about robot mowers like this.

Do you have an irrigation system with valve-in-head rotors? Do you have a central control? If yes, your biggest piece of equipment on your course is already a robot.

Afraid robot mowers will take away jobs? How did our current irrigation system technology affect jobs of people who used to manually plug in quick coupler heads all night long? Are you willing to go back to the way it used to be with irrigation? Didn't having actual people manually plugging heads in give it that personal touch that is lost with today's "automatic" sprinkler systems? Don't you think that the precision that modern irrigation systems bring makes golf better? Don't you think that trained and skilled people are still required to operate these highly efficient marvels of irrigation technology?

Just as it is seen today to be better to spend time fine tuning the irrigation system run times instead of spending time just simply turning them on and off again, the same will be true for robot mowers.

Did anyone imaging that we would one day be able to control thousands of sprinkler heads with extreme precision with a computer we hold in our hand?

I think the same big shakeup is coming to mowers sooner than everyone thinks.

Just like with our current irrigation systems, maximum efficiency is found with many heads that distribute water over a smaller area. The same will be true for robotic mowers. Instead of having 1 or two fairway mowers like we have today, we will have hundreds of small battery powered machines.

If one of them breaks down the rest of the "swarm" will be able to pick up the slack. Today, if your only current fairway mower breaks down, nothing gets cut until it is fixed., robotic or human powered.

One big mower is expensive. Many smaller mowers will be easier to start small with and expand their usefulness in small increments. There will be no need to go all in right away. As people are hesitant to adopt the new robotic technology. This will allow them to take baby steps

We won't have mowers that are dedicated to a specific area of the course. Instead, they will have variable heights of cut and will adjust as they enter different areas of the course. Think of the robots of being like a CNC machine today. They will roam the property at times that you specify and will adjust the HOC as needed depending on their current location.

Just like irrigation systems that are designed with a specific water window in mind. We will design these mowing systems with a mowing window. The number of robots that you require will be based off of the time you wish to spend mowing each day or night.

These mowers will change golf course architecture as well. How much of our current golf course design is based off of the needs of irrigation, drainage and mower capabilities? As mower capabilities change we can only expect the course designs to change as well.

Our current mowers have rigid heights of cut. Sure we can adjust them from day to day but they cannot generally be adjusted as we mow. This leaves course areas defined by the height at which the grass is cut. Greens are the shortest, Tees and approaches are a little higher, fairways are higher yet and finally there is the rough. Some courses even have intermediate rough and naturalized areas which aren't mowed at all.

Are rigid height of cut transitions because it's what's best for the game or because it's only what is possible with our current mower technology?
With robot mowers we won't need to define areas like this. We will be able to have soft transitions from one area to another. Focusing on technology that allows robots to mow super precise borders is nice but probably not needed except for maybe the edge of greens although Chambers Bay had no defined border on their greens for years. This feature is needlessly complicated and slows the progress of these mowers. It's probably not needed.

Course architects will be able to design holes with variable heights of cut depending on the weather or how difficult you want the course to play. Greenkeepers will be able to adjust the mowing patterns with the push of a button.

You will be able to upload any pattern of mowing that you want with ease.

After a while, just as we always seem to do. Nostalgia for the ways of old will come back into style and they will have to go through great effort to make mowers that create hard edges except it won't be hard. You will just push a button to present the course as it was back when they still used hickory shafts and mowers that could only cut one height of cut at a time.

We will be able to mount sensors and tools to these mowers as well.

They will drop seed and fertilizer on bare spots. They will spray weeds or kill them with lazers and target disease with UV light. This will drastically improve the environmental impact that golf courses have. No fossil fuels and highly targeted pest control using light.

Maybe this isn't realistic but the more I think of it the more excited I get about the possibilities that lie ahead.

While I really want to try out the current robot mower tech I don't think the leap from what they do today to what I have described above is that big. It would be neat to try out today's technology but we won't have to wait long for something vastly better.
Image result for husqvarna 450x
This is what the mower of the future will look like. Image:

Friday, 7 December 2018

The Future of Robot Mowers Today

In my travels I am very fortunate to be able to sit in on other people's presentations. While in Denmark last month I was able to sit in on a presentation by William Boogaarts who works for de Enk Groen & Golf in the Netherlands. They have been using robot mowers for years and in my opinion are way ahead of us in North America.

Yes, I know there are a few golf courses that use robot mowers already but they are very few and far between.

In his presentation he showed the impressive self driving mower tech that has been adapted to our current mowing equipment. While impressive, this wasn't what really caught my attention. Thinking that adapting our current mowers to be self driving is completely missing the boat when it comes to robotic mowers.

He showed us how they were using the small robotic mowers from Husqvarna to mow fairways. While not 100% ideal for golf courses currently, they are relatively cheap technology that can do the job TODAY!

The more I think about using these mowers on golf courses the more they make sense and the more I think how our current equipment manufacturers might completely miss the boat and end up like Kodak. Obsolete in only a few short years.

Currently these robotic mowers can mow up to 5000m^2 on a charge which is about 1 fairway. Their HOC only goes down to 20mm which isn't quite short enough for most courses. I think this could probably be modified to cut lower.

On fairways that were mowed with this mower, experienced greenkeepers couldn't tell the difference as far as quality of cut is concerned. These mowers are relentless and will mow as often as is required during the times of day or night that you specify. They can sense where the grass is longer and will return to these areas more often and will skip areas where growth isn't as much. In the near future this data could easily be used to adjust fertilizer rates based off of growth on your course. You could also add sensors to measure moisture and even a small seeder to drop seed on bare areas.

The best part and the thing that the current greens mowing robots can't do is, they require no human interaction to do their job. You just program them and let them go. They charge themselves and mow when needed. Set it and forget it.

Because we aren't paying a person to sit on these mowers we don't need to be concerned about the speed of mowing. They can mow all the time so we can get away with much smaller machines to do the work. This small size brings a lot of benefits to the job.

They don't wear the grass out as much as big mowers. Less wear and tear is a good thing. They can travel over softer areas without sinking and leaving deep ruts. They can also mow slopes up to 45 degrees! This is a big deal for us a Pender Harbour and if the grass is wet here on our 4th hole, we can only mow downhill even with all wheel drive mowers.

This increased turf quality isn't just anecdotal. This study showed that an autonomous mower modified to mow at 1.2cm had better quality grass

Steep slopes are a challenge for conventional mowers.
The best part I think about their small size is how they remove a lot of the mechanical complexity that the larger mowers require. No hydraulics, only 1 spinning blade. No fuel needs.

That brings up the point of transitioning to a sustainable energy use model on our courses. With large mowers their cost will only go up as the batteries are currently way too expensive for such large machines. If there's anything we don't need, is for our mowers to become more expensive. These small mowers can already be powered by battery today so the transition away from fossil fuels is easy and painless with small mowers.

There are downsides though. Because they are so small they can't mulch like our conventional mowers can. Leaves, branches pine cones and probably divots will need to be blown clear. For most of the year this isn't an issue but during the fall and winter storms this might cause issues.

Their docking stations need a power supply. If you have satellite irrigation controllers you could tie into their power supplies. If not it might be expensive to run power to each fairway.

The mowers today are only commercial or home owner specific. The leap to a golf course model is not that big. Maybe a bigger battery and a lower hoc and some sensors for moisture.

Drones will be obsolete as quickly as they became popular. There will be no need for them with these future mowers. I would not invest in drones today after seeing this. They are simply too difficult and costly to fly in some areas. Adding the sensor tech to the mowers bypasses all the issues with drone mounted tech.

Let's do some quick and dirty math to see how the return on investment might be for these mowers.

Cost of 1 current fairway mower. $60-90,000. every 5 years.

Cost to mow 10 ha of grass each season 3 times a week. $15-20,000.

Cost of fuel and mower maintenance each year. $5000+

So the cost of mowing fairways with this quick and dirty math is about $32,000 per year at best.

The robot mower with the highest capacity costs about $4500. You need 20 of these mowers to cut 10ha for a total cost of $90,000. Of course you need to supply power to your fairways but that's a one time cost and will vary a lot course to course.

So for the price of 1 fairway mower you can cut 18 holes of fairways but essentially will have no fuel cost or labor cost. You will have to spend some time cleaning debris off the fairways but that won't be significant. New blades every month or so also won't be a significant expense.

As you can see, the return on investment is about 3 years with these mowers today but you will potentially also get a better product with smaller machines. Many courses have more than 1 fairway mower so the ROI will be even quicker for them. With improvement in the tech it will be even less in short order.

It's crazy how quickly this technology is progressing. Just like other facets of the tech industry a lot of people will be caught off guard. This tech is ready today but with some tweaks it will be the best option for golf courses in every way. If you recently bought a new fairway mower, I expect it could be the last big mower you will buy. If you have an old unit that you are wanting to replace, look into this tech, the return on investment is very quick.

If this intrigues you, you can act today. These mowers are available everywhere, all they need are some forward thinking and innovative superintendents to try them out and make them work for golf.

I think I may have just purchased my last big expensive mower.