By Steve Eubanks
It’s thankless and often a manpower drain. Ask any club operator about managing the driving range and you won’t get far into the conversation before you hear about the part-time kid who vanishes in the middle of the day, only to be found riding around in the range picker like a slow-grazing lamb. In many places, that employee is not making between $10 and $15 an hour to slow-roll the picker around the range while carts pile up and bags go unwashed.
Throw in the labor shortage that continues to plague most operators, and range picking is a problem that requires immediate attention.
Innovators are now addressing that issue with robot range pickers. At the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in January, several vendors displayed advanced robotic pickers – like Roombas for your driving range – which, for about $20,000 per unit, will eliminate the need for the caged cart, gang-style rotatory picker units and, perhaps most importantly, a dedicated person to pick the range.
Several companies are in this space, which has seen advancements in recent years. According to Joe Fahey of Echo Robotics, one of the most prominent exhibitors at the PGA Show, “We’ve been testing these for a number of years. The first generation has been available in Europe for about a decade.”
The early iterations worked on synthetic surfaces like TopGolf. But the more advanced generations now pick grass ranges with great efficiency. Lasers and a grid allow the picker to work, day or night, to sweep the range completely.
Echo also has an autonomous mower that works in tandem with the picker. Again, with advanced lasers, blades won’t cut stray balls that the picker might have missed.
With Covid shutting down the last PGA Show, this January was the first time Echo and other vendors were able to show off the products in person to a mass audience. Everyone who saw them was impressed.
“It’s really going to be a game-changer for golf courses all over the U.S.,” Fahey said.