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Lynnfield inventor builds robot golf caddy

By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / August 25, 2011

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In the 20th century, the goal of the inventor was to build a better mousetrap. These days, it’s to build a better robot.

Chunghsin Lee’s desire was to build a robot that would carry his golf clubs.

“I prefer to walk, and know a lot of other people who prefer to walk,’’ said Lee, an avid golfer who is chief executive and chief designer at Wakefield-based FTR Systems Inc., which this week launched the CaddyTrek - an electronic caddy built with robotic technology - at the PGA Expo in Las Vegas.

Manufactured in Shanghai, prototypes have been tested in China and near San Francisco.

While Lee, a fit 62 years old, likes to walk the course for 36 holes each week, lugging a bag is a different story.

“I still carry my own bag, but it becomes a chore,’’ said Lee, who lives in Lynnfield. “So, I thought that maybe a cart following you will be a good idea. I know there’s one company in Australia that has a follow-you cart, but it’s huge. It’s about half the size of a riding cart. I wanted to do one that was affordable and compact, so you can put it into your trunk and go anywhere you want. We started with an idea to build a cart the size of airline carry-on luggage. We’re probably a little over that at this point, but it’s still small enough and light enough to fit in your trunk. Not on an airline, but you could check it in.’’

While creating the CaddyTrek, Lee also built a better version of the electronic golf bag trolleys/caddies on the market. Using a device clipped to the golfer’s belt, CaddyTrek follows the golfer at his or her walking pace, starting and stopping when the golfer does, and - in the words of the product website - allows the golfer to “walk the course relaxed and totally focus yourself on the game.’’ Sensors keep it from bumping into trees or other obstructions, and a remote control can be used to bring the caddy closer when it’s time to pull out a club.

“We had a couple [prototypes] in the Bay Area [of California] for the last eight months, and the results have been good,’’ said Lee, who compares it to a puppy or young child following you around. “It takes about half a round to get used to it, but once you’re familiar with it, you can pretty much forget about it.’’

Greg Parker, assistant club pro at Amesbury Golf and Country Club, said that while he has never seen one that followed a golfer along, electric caddies that are self-propelled and, in some cases, have remote controls, are a popular item, particularly among older golfers who still want to walk the course.

“The golfers that have them like them,’’ Parker said. “It saves them from carrying their bag, or pushing it.’’

Kernwood Country Club member Wayne Krupsky said the idea sounds good to him.

“I’d much rather walk, but lugging a golf bag is a pain,’’ he said, noting that he’s observed other golfers using electronic carts, and “most seem to end up either ahead of it or behind it.’’

Bob Green is the head pro at Tedesco Country Club in Marblehead, which has a reputation as a walking club. Tedesco was given a few demonstration model electric carts several years ago.

“Some found them very distracting,’’ Green said. “Not only did [golfers] need to manage their golf game, but they also had to manage the pushcart. If you used it enough, it would probably become part of your routine.’’

Tedesco member Debby Rockstroh also found the idea intriguing. Although at this stage of her life, she said, she enjoys the exercise of walking the course with a manual cart, she can see a time when a robotic caddy might be preferable.

“The question for me is how reliable the technology is,’’ she said. “I envision it going into a pond, and my clubs with it. When the technology is tried and true and I’m ready and want to walk and don’t want to push my own cart, I’d consider it.’’

Lee, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering and has owned various companies since 1988, holds more than 20 patents, most of them related to equipment used to manufacture semiconductors. (His other company is Semigear Inc., based in Wakefield.)

“CaddyTrek is the first one with nothing to do with technical stuff, even though it’s very technical,’’ he said, smiling at the irony.

Lee said he plans to sell the product through a distributor as well as through his website, www.caddytrek.com. He anticipates a retail price of $1,200. The company has not selected a distributor yet.

And while Lee said he is hoping that CaddyTrek becomes popular on golf courses, he sees the CaddyTrek technology used elsewhere.