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August 2021

Seeing the Golf Course at a Whole New Level

By Scott Kauffman

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones as they are now commonly called, is a soaring business. From golf facilities to other real estate professionals and owners, drones are helping take marketing to whole new heights with all the striking images drones now deliver.

To be sure, there’s much more to drone technology than just capturing slick videos to post on one’s website. And the golf industry, as well as the overall agricultural industry, understand this high-flying technology as much as anyone as they apply agronomic-focused drone programs to better manage turfgrasses and other valuable crops.

Established course maintenance-related applications notwithstanding, another area of the golf business where one drone company sees relative untapped value is when owners are looking to acquire new courses, start extensive renovation projects or perhaps address a major course-related issue when time is of the essence. At least that’s the  view from Swampfox Aerial founder/chief executive officer Tom Ihrke, whose Charleston, S.C.-based firm markets innovative LiDAR-powered drone technology as a growing due-diligence tool for architects, surveyors, engineers charged with helping turn real estate developer’s or real estate investor’s “visions into reality.”

LiDAR, acronym for light detection and ranging, is basically a method for determining ranges or variable distances by targeting an object with a laser and measuring the time for the reflected light to return to the receiver. It’s the same technology used to make digital 3-D representations of the earth’s surface or ocean floors and something Ihrke says allows his drone to act like a “fish finder with a laser.”

 “It takes like 100,000 laser pulses a minute, and by using the GPS network, we can get very accurate - sometimes within a centimeter accuracy of the ground,” Ihrke adds. “We’re also able to penetrate a tree canopy so for someone who’s looking at a big property with covered trees we can actually show them what the ground looks like beneath it without taking down a single tree. It’s like the difference between looking at an x-ray or having a (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine.”

Another advantage to Ihrke’s MRI-like leap in technology is that Swampfox can map an 18-hole course at a fraction of the $125 to $300 per acre rate it might cost doing it the traditional 2-dimensional mapping way. Plus, rather than taking 10 weeks to survey and map a 150-200 acre property, Ihrke estimates, his drone can fly and do it in one day and deliver client data in a week.

“We can tell you in advance where you’re going to have sunlight problems because we can map the tops of the trees and the height,” Ihrke adds. “We can map where erosion is going to occur; we can show you where a single drop of water dropped anywhere on the golf course is going to end up. … You ultimately have a 3-D point cloud of your course that allows you to know all the stuff you want to know that might take greenskeepers years to really figure it out.

“You could mathematically do it by modelling it in advance. And we really think that’s an important benefit of this technology for golf courses. Plus, the speed element and time savings is really important, particularly in the sale or acquisition of a property. It’s a lot cheaper to gather the data this way than it is to go out and fix a problem after it occurs. Or, to make for instance a bad purchase on a piece of property that can’t be fixed.”

Prior to starting Swampfox Aerial, Ihrke spent many years as an investment banker and actually brokered an acquisition of a drone company in Texas by an engineering firm.  He says he wished he had a technology solution like Swampfox that he could have relied on when evaluating companies.

“I would have used it every time beforehand,” Ihrke says. “Because when you eliminate the mistakes, you save yourself a fortune.”

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