Robotic grass mower to hit links next year

Norm Heikens
November 19, 2008
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Precise Path Robotics Inc., a Carmel company started by tech entrepreneur Scott Jones and other investors, is about to unveil its first product - a lawnmower guided by technology developed for the battlefield.

Precise Path plans to display the RG3 at the Golf Industry Show in New Orleans in February, and anticipates selling 50 units next year.

The mower, which will be priced at about $30,000, is guided by miniaturized global positioning technology developed by the company.

President Doug Traster expects golf course managers to be receptive to replacing conventional mowers used to manicure greens. Most courses use expensive walk-behind mowers that snip the grass an eighth of an inch high and depend heavily on operator skill.

Managers "are struggling to keep these guys focused to mow these greens perfectly," Traster said. "This is not a person skill."

Precise Path is adapting its guidance systems to existing mowers.

The soul of the guidance system was developed in 2005 by Jones and other tech experts through a Carmel company called Indy Robot Racing to enter a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The department was seeking systems to steer driverless vehicles for the military.

A Jeep outfitted with a phalanx of laptop computers and sensing equipment crashed, and another competitor won the competition. But Jones, who also recently launched the ChaCha Search Inc. Internet search engine company, parlayed the technology into Precise Path Robotics.

Traster, who helped develop the technology used on the Jeep, said the lawnmowers are guided by sensors that look like irrigation spigots and are located near greens. The sensors cost a fraction of that of the global positioning system technology used in trucking, agriculture and other applications.

Golf course operators, who currently turn loose several employees every morning at daybreak to trim greens, can cut back to one employee who shuttles four robotic mowers around an 18-hole course.

Routes followed by the mowers are accurate to within an inch, Traster said.

The mowers also create tiny topographical maps of each green, showing the terrain and location of holes. Golfers armed with the maps may improve their scores, Traster said.

Eventually, the mowers will be outfitted with technology that samples clippings for moisture content and recommends spot irrigation and fertilizer applications within greens.

Precise Path also is talking with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about using similar machines to paint sponsor logos in the middle of the infield. The logos, painted by the equivalent of a mobile laser printer, would be visible from Google Maps, opening a new market.

Precise Path anticipates selling about 50 mower units next year and hopes to build to about 2,000 by 2011, he said. About 14,000 conventional units are sold a year in the country.

Traster said the future of Precise Path isn't set in concrete.

"We're not going to kick a John Deere or a Toro in the teeth if they come talking to us," Traster quipped.

However, he said the company is being built with an eye toward staying independent.

Precise Path eventually plans to license its guidance technology to other firms in order to focus on development-a model similar to the one pursued by cell phone pioneer San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc.




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