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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Drones could help control weeds in hard-to-reach areas on golf courses

With elevation changes approaching triple digits, LedgeRock Golf Club has an abundance of breathtaking views. Getting any kind of equipment, especially a spray rig, on those same high, steep slopes can be a challenge. Throw in the requisite labor shortages facing just about every golf course from coast to coast, and it does not take long for weeds to take over the most hard-to-reach places on the 2006 Rees Jones design near Reading, Pennsylvania.

In the past, FitzGerald has had members of his crew spray those steep slopes by hand, but the recent labor crunch has forced him to divert that manpower elsewhere on the golf course. As a result, it did not take long for summer weeds to overtake many of those areas that comprise as much as 15 acres.

"Everything I can put a boom sprayer on is great, but the places I can't get a boom sprayer on are not," said LedgeRock superintendent Alan FitzGerald. "There has to be a better way."

091021drone4.jpgA conversation with a friend in the agriculture industry yielded a potential solution - using a drone to spray those areas where traditional rigs cannot go. Drones have been used to dust crops since 1987, according to Agronomix.com, a web site dedicated to the science of plant breeding, but it is new technology in golf. FitzGerald believes LedgeRock might be the first and only golf course to dabble in drones for anything other than photography and videography.

While golf courses around the country have struggled to find enough help since the pandemic began, LedgeRock has done a decent job at avoiding a labor crisis by tactics that include increasing pay incrementally. Still, FitzGerald's staff is down by more than 20 percent this year, which is enough of a shortage that he cannot send people into those slopes to spray by hand.

"For me, the labor is the big thing. This is more efficient," FitzGerald said. "If I can get to these awkward areas and save labor, that's a win-win. If it takes work off my plate, if these drones get bigger and can carry more, I see more of a future for flying. As I like to say, laziness is the mother of invention."

A drone pilot from Rantizo, an Iowa-based firm licensed to spray herbicides in several states, including Pennsylvania, has conducted two test flights over LedgeRock. And FitzGerald has seen enough that he already plans to bring them in next year for preventive herbicide applications. The drone operator maps out the coordinates, and the spray perimeter is controlled by GPS.

Rantizo's drone utilizes Real Time Kinetic positioning to ensure accuracy of application.

"We do deal with a bunch of terrain," said Juan Cantu of Rantizo. "We overcome that by a radar system on our drones to follow the terrain. This drone application is perfect for site-specific application. It reduces chemicals being put out and knows exactly where it should go. Our drones are equipped with RTK accuracy, so we are within sub-inch accuracy." 

In the first test run, the drone operator sprayed turf paint into the bunkers as a demonstration. FitzGerald was intrigued enough to bring them back to test herbicide on some of the awkward weedy areas on steep fescue-covered slopes.

During the second visit, the operator sprayed two acres of slope covered with fescue and all manner of summer weeds. It takes longer to spray areas of equal size on a golf course compared with a farm field because the spray rates are greater for golf, requiring more frequent fill-ups. The operator flies the drone 5 feet above the surface. At 5 gallons per acre, the operator covered the entire 2-acre area in two flights, and tree cover makes reaching some areas - even by air - impossible. Still, the allure of spraying areas where hand applications are difficult if not impossible is enough to warrant the procedure.

"It was more cost effective than I expected. Once it is mapped and the preliminary work is done it is pretty efficient," FitzGerald said. " He can spray three to five acres an hour. The next time he comes, that area is already mapped out. What took an hour-and-a-half last time to set up now takes five minutes. Down the road, when everything is mapped out, the production cost will go down a lot.

It is a luxury, but it also is a labor savings, which is everything these days. If I had two guys out there, they could be out there for a month to get everything right. The speed and convenience will save labor, and I can get them to other things that they normally couldn't get to.

"It is a luxury, but it also is a labor savings, which is everything these days. If I had two guys out there, they could be out there for a month to get everything right. The speed and convenience will save labor, and I can get them to other things that they normally couldn't get to."

The genesis behind the idea for drone spraying came earlier this year when FitzGerald took a long, hard look at one of those difficult-to-reach areas by the 18th tee.

"We had not been able to spray there in years," he said. "And it looked like crap."

The sheer size of acreage of fairways and roughs makes spraying those areas unrealistic, but the technology can be used to spray bunker edges and other tight spots, FitzGerald said.

"Bunker banks are a headache for us, too," he said. "The sprayer skips, and it's hard to get to everything.

Drone spraying is not necessarily for everything on the golf course, and it's not for everyone. It's a little slow for the rates we have to spray, but it is going to save me a lot of labor in the long run, because we can shift labor around to where we need it. We'll see what the herbicide does in the next day or two, but I'll definitely bring them back next year to do more."

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