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Desert Canyon first in nation to adopt robotic mowers

Posted 4/18/23

Over the past decade, a wave of automation has been making its mark on industries new and old, aimed at creating efficiencies and freeing up the workforce to focus on more critical tasks.

In golf …

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Desert Canyon first in nation to adopt robotic mowers


Over the past decade, a wave of automation has been making its mark on industries new and old, aimed at creating efficiencies and freeing up the workforce to focus on more critical tasks.

In golf course management, automation is making a splash in Fountain Hills as Desert Canyon Golf Club – the original golf course in Fountain Hills – becomes the first golf course in the United States to commit to a fleet of fully-automated mowers.

For the past two weeks, 26 electric-powered Husqvarna Automowers hum along the fairways, learning the curves and knolls of each hole at Desert Canyon. According to Martin Ort, Desert Canyon’s general manager, these compact, bright orange machines are lighter than diesel lawnmowers, taking less of a toll on the Bermuda Grass, reducing loud mower noise and ultimately cutting back on diesel emissions.

“It’s kind of like a Roomba,” Ort said. “It’ll go back to the charging station, charge and cruise back out…It’ll remember where it left off and continue from there.”

The Automower is scheduled to mow during the night for approximately three hours before turning in and charging for one hour. On a downhill slope, the Automower slows down to ensure a consistent cut.

Currently in calibration mode, Automowers can be seen mowing during the day, but Ort said that soon, their main working hours will be after dark.

Zone defense

Precision is key, Ort said, explaining that the mowing zones for each machine are set by signal routers attached to wooden poles dispersed throughout the golf course. The poles were stained to blend into their environment and match the color of the clubhouse.

Addressing a concern that has been brought to his attention, Ort said the poles are not cameras.

“The last thing I have time for is to see what homeowners or golfers are doing on the golf course,” Ort said. “People can rest easy that ‘no, we’re not watching people anywhere unless we’re here in the building for security reasons.’”

The Automower is a product of a strategic partnership between the manufacturing company Husqvarna and the agricultural and defense analytics services firm, GreenSight, which uses a cloud-based turf management platform to create new efficiencies and reduced labor needs. The Automower is predominately used in Europe, making Desert Canyon the first golf course stateside to complete a full installation.

Ort and his Golf Course Superintendent Matt Guilfoil have been discussing the idea of automation for several years. When Guilfoil saw GreenSight post about the Automower on their Twitter page he decided to reach out, and following an onsite mower demonstration, the installation process began.

Labor concerns

With the help of the Automowers, the staff at Desert Canyon is back on par when it comes to completing tasks around the golf club.

“The nice thing is that now with these [mowers], we can remove one task, which is a long task,” Ort said. “Now we can take care of things that we haven’t had time for, whether it be landscaping, cleaning up around bunkers, tee boxes and certain things over the years we had to eliminate because we just didn’t have the bodies for it.”

According to Ort, the decision to adopt a fully-automated mower fleet was a longstanding challenge of finding staff, an issue that existed before the pandemic.

“COVID definitely made it a little more intense,” Ort said, who recalls outsourcing to some of the many landscaping companies around town, “because we just didn’t have the able bodies to do it.”

Before the inevitable thought of robots taking away jobs, Ort said he’s still hiring as many people as he can find.

“We still have the job board up for our maintenance department. This hasn’t impacted that at all. If anything, we still need more bodies to take care of everything else [because] there’s so much to do on a golf course,” he said. “These robots freed us up to be able to make sure we maintain a good golf course and make it as good as it can be with what we have at our disposal.”

Noise reduction

According to Husqvarna.com, Automowers operate between 50-60 decibels, which is quieter than an average conversation.

“We’re trying what we can to be good neighbors,” Ort said, adding that the new investment in the Automowers is a win for guests and neighbors alike.

For the time being, Desert Canyon will still keep their diesel-powered mowers for the putting greens and the annual overseeding process, but compared to using them year-round, Ort is hopeful that those within earshot of the course will be pleased with the new changes.

Grass is greener

As Ort works out the kinks of owning a new and improved mower fleet, he said it’s a privilege to be first in line in the U.S., however, as with many early adopters, Ort said it’s also nerve-wracking.

“The nice thing is, us being the first one to really do a hundred percent install with Husqvarna and GreenSight, we have their full support because they also need this to succeed,” he added.

With the success of Automowers overseas and the rapid movement of automation across industries, Ort said he wouldn’t be surprised if he starts to see more electric mowers on golf courses, baseball fields and even backyards.

“They can benefit Fountain Park or Golden Eagle Park…it doesn’t have to be a golf course, it can be wherever there’s grass,” he said. “The infrastructure update for power on the golf course was a substantial one, but in the long term, it's going to pay off.”