Most motorists can't imagine life without GPS, and some literally find themselves lost without it. It may be too soon to say the same about the professionals and volunteers entrusted with maintaining sports fields, but satellite-assisted equipment has nonetheless made certain turf care tasks easier than ever.
In reality, the space-age nature of GPS technology alone isn't precise enough for turf care. "Everyone has the experience of being on your Waze app or Google Maps and you're on an off ramp and the app still thinks you're on the expressway. That's normal GPS technology," says Boyd Montgomery, regional business manager for Sports Fields and Grounds, North America, at turf equipment manufacturer The Toro Company. "Now, when you marry it up with the RTK technology, it gets it down to where it knows exactly where you are within a centimeter."
Specifically, RTK (real-time kinematic) technology has been combined with GPS to bring precision and convenience of operation to two different pieces of spray equipment.
What's driving equipment innovation?
As autonomous technology expands within the sports turf marketplace, it's important to keep in mind what (or who) drives equipment innovation: people, and specifically well-educated end-users.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1984, Paul Zwaska joined the Baltimore Orioles grounds crew and served as head groundskeeper from 1991 to 2000. Upon entering the industry, he was among a handful of individuals holding a turf degree who chose a career in sports over golf, and he likely was Major League Baseball's first sports turf degree-holder.
But that all changed by the early 1990s, with more degree programs producing graduates with sports turf expertise. "What drove that? Well, part of it was the evolution into using sand-based field systems, in other words sports fields that were grown on sand for better drainage," Zwaska says. "Because you're growing grass on a fairly sterile medium — sand doesn't do a good job of holding water or nutrients — your margin of error is very slim. That created the demand for better equipment and equipment that did different things. And if you recall, golf started to bomb after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. There weren't jobs, so the kids coming out of turf school were going into sports turf, and these educated people really started to push for more equipment, better equipment, equipment that could do more, equipment that could do things that we never thought of before."
Despite his soil science background (as opposed to the more common agriculture- or horticulture-based degree), Zwaska's education continued well into his stint with the Orioles, who moved from the native-soil Memorial Stadium to the sand-based Oriole Park a year after he took the groundskeeping helm. "It was an adjustment for me," he says. "Even though I had the education, it was still a huge adjustment when you move from a native-soil field to a sand-based field. Your watering program changes, your fertility program changes, your work with pesticides to keep the grass healthy, that all changes. It's a totally different ballgame."
Today, as director of education and strategic initiatives for field maintenance supplier Beacon Athletics, Zwaska still finds time to groom baseball diamonds — only now they're at the Little League level. He still walks the trade show floors and marvels at the innovation available to today's turf managers. "I just see what these guys have and I'm almost jealous, because I would have loved to have had all the stuff that they have back when I was in it," Zwaska says. "I think to myself how much better I could have maintained my fields. I walk on these guys' fields now and I am just blown away at how perfect they are. They weren't perfect in the '80s. They were as perfect as perfect could be for that time. Now they're like pool tables."
As much of a fan as anyone these days, Zwaska looks forward to the fields of the future. Will GPS-guided mowers manage to create the patterned designs that now dominate ballparks from MLB on down to the amateur levels?
"To me, that's the big question. If it's GPS-guided, it should be able to — as we used to say in the industry — shoot lasers with those stripes, in other words just have dead-straight stripes," he says. "That's certainly something that everybody in our industry is going to be asking for, because they want stripes. Part of the art of groundskeeping is making it visually appealing for the fan."
Robotic line painter
A robotic line painter is capable of creating exact field dimensions in a fraction of the time it takes human beings to measure, string and paint. Field templates for a variety of sports are provided through an app, customized by the end-user if desired, and communicated to the painting machine via tablet, where each newly created field is stored for future reference.
The 120-pound, battery-powered Turf Tank machine, for example, is driven into its starting position — a corner of the field to be created — much like a remote-control car, but one loaded with three gallons of paint and input from multiple satellites. The height of the paint nozzle can be adjusted depending on the width of the line desired, but once the start button is pressed, the robot is on its own — freeing groundskeepers to perform other tasks on that field, such as painting stenciled numbers or logos, or completely unrelated tasks.
Among the earliest adopters of the autonomous Turf Tank, available to the U.S. market since 2017, are municipalities with large sports campuses or multiple parks, according to company president Jason Aldridge. Volunteer-dependent youth organizations, in particular, stand to benefit. "It can be hard to find volunteers to do things like paint fields," Aldridge says. "Having technology like this allows volunteer organizations to reallocate their time to do things that they would rather be doing."
A few municipalities that made the $40,000 investment in the machine have been so convinced of its convenience that they've purchased a second one. Colleges, including the University of Rhode Island, have started to join the ranks of the converted, as has Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots and New England Revolution, who use a Turf Tank to line their practice fields. Aldridge himself watched as the Tampa Sports Authority's robot painted a soccer field at Raymond James Stadium for a March 5 match between the U.S. Women's National Team and Brazil in the SheBelieves Cup.
One machine can paint a soccer field ready for prime-time television in 45 minutes. "If you're doing 24 soccer fields for a tournament, we can cut that time in half," Aldridge says. "We can do a soccer field in 20 minutes. We can control the speed of the robot depending on your grass cut and what your quality expectations are."
Slower speeds yield the highest quality. Says Aldridge, "The way the technology works is the robot — and patented base station — is gathering satellite data. As it's processing the route plan, it's getting that data from all the satellites, and that's how it makes sure it paints a straight line. The faster it goes, the quicker it has to process that data, so you might have a little bit more variation in your line. The slower you go, the corrections have enough time to process."
Aldridge admits that some professional or major college venues may never use the robot to paint their game fields. It's precise enough to get the job done, but "if you only have one game stadium to do and you have five or six guys on staff, that's kind of their job," he says. "It's a lot different than if you have a complex with 24 soccer fields."
While a crew of four might require four hours to line an American football field, including hash marks, the robot can accomplish the process in three — using half as much paint (about 12 gallons) due to the low-pressure spray nozzle it employs. In fact, in addition to saving 16 hours of labor expense per application ($240, conservatively), Aldridge estimates that a 15-field soccer complex painting fields weekly for nine months out of the year could spend between $7,500 and $15,000 annually on aerosol paint. "We're going to cut that cost in half," he says, adding that labor and paint savings combined have allowed larger organizations to report full return on their Turf Tank investment within two years.
Traditional equipment trends
Mowing represents the one inescapable turf management task, with aeration a close second on any groundskeeper's to-do list. Technological innovation has touched both.
To date, autonomous mowers have seen limited application in commercial settings — primarily within finite areas on golf courses. However, major manufacturers such as The Toro Company and John Deere report they are exploring broader sports turf applications for the technology.
For now, consumers face the long-standing choice of traditional reel and rotary mowers, with the more precise reel mower gaining favor at all levels of play. "Over the past six to seven years, since emphasis has been placed on playing surface safety and precision mowing, we've seen a large uptick in terms of reel mowers replacing rotary mowers," says Ren Wilkes, marketing manager at John Deere. "It's a much better cut and gives you a better product, meaning a safer playing surface, so we actually have seen a lot more reel mowers coming into all aspects of sports turf, no matter the category."
Even mowers that still require manpower to operate are getting more sophisticated in terms of computerized information displays and uniform operating platforms from one piece of a company's equipment line to another.
Toro regional business manager Boyd Montgomery looks to 2013's Tier 4 emissions standards as the beginning of "brains" being specified for turf-care equipment. "I think the value is going to come as these machines now have technology on board that companies can start looking at and trying to figure out how we make a smarter machine, and by that I mean can the machine be more proactive than reactive?" As an example, Toro employs electric reels that can alert the operator if one reel isn't rotating at the proper speed.
Aerators likewise have evolved, from rolling drums with fixed tines to machines that use cam action to physically punch solid or hollow tines through the soil profile. This allows for more penetration — perhaps twice as many holes per square foot — in less time. Montgomery recalls his days caring for the fields at Pacesetter Park in Sylvania, Ohio. "We would have to aerate north, south, east, west, and sometimes we'd even do crisscrosses to try to really put a good number of holes into the ground to relieve that solid compaction build-up," he says, adding that with modern equipment it takes one pass.
Other equipment efficiencies have emerged, with some technologies dating back decades. Power Turf Renovation in Phoenix, Ariz., sells one machine — a piece that debuted in its current PTO-powered form in 2002, but traces its roots to a walk-behind model from 1946. And that one machine tackles multiple tasks. "It aerates, dethatches, verticuts. You can take the lips off your ball fields with it. You can level turf. You can remove gopher mounds," Frank Klopping says of his company's Turf Renovator. "It does all those things without having to change any of the tooling on the machine."
As for GPS technology, Wilkes looks to the future with great interest. "It's an exciting time," he says. "It's also a little scary. In 2007, nobody had a smartphone, and today everybody has one. It's an evolving process, but I think that's on the horizon as something that's going to be a labor-saver, a time-saver, and a lot of sports fields will start going to it."
"I don't think we're too far off of it," Montgomery adds. "It's coming. It's just a matter of being able to make the economics of autonomous work within the market dynamics of equipment acquisition for grounds managers."
Another type of spray machine that marries GPS and RTK technologies applies chemicals to athletic fields. Unlike the unmanned line painter, the chemical applicator still requires a human being to drive it. Where the satellite guidance comes in is in the application itself.
Toro's Multi Pro® 5800 with GeoLink is a 300-gallon-capacity sprayer with a dozen spray nozzles arrayed along a 20-foot-6-inch boom behind the driver. If the driver manages to overlap a pass in relation to the previous one made, one or more nozzles above the overlap will automatically disengage. Conversely, if the driver steers a subsequent pass too wide, on-board display technology will indicate that a spot was missed, allowing the driver to double back, with only the nozzles needed to cover the miss engaging.
Moreover, the system has a memory, mapping out each field application in its entirety. "Let's say the operator didn't go back and catch the area that he missed," Montgomery says. "When that sprayer gets back to the maintenance building, the grounds director or whoever is looking at that map will know that 'Hey, that area has been missed. We have to go back out and do it.' "
If a nozzle is malfunctioning out of the driver's direct line of sight, sensors within the nozzle will relay that fact to an onboard information display.
While the technology in this case still requires a warm body on board to operate the machine, it significantly reduces the guesswork involved in chemical application and renders unnecessary the process of dropping foam markers off the end of the boom and onto the field to indicate the edge of the last pass.
"This really is about consistency, which translates into chemical savings, because you're not spraying more than what you need," Montgomery says. "You've got detailed reports of exactly where the product went down and how much of it went down."
In addition, preprogramming capability ensures that only the desired jobs can be carried out in the first place. Says Montgomery, "Let's say the director of the facility has a plan today to go out and spray soccer fields — three in one area of an eight-field complex and another two in another area of the complex. He can program into the system where he wants that spray to occur: soccer fields one, two and three, and then soccer fields four and five. If the driver went out to field number eight, and it wasn't part of that job, he could drive on it all day long and it would not spray."
Could the help afforded by satellite technology become too much of a good thing? Are groundskeepers' jobs in jeopardy?
"I go back to the days I was working at Sylvania Recreation in Ohio, where we cared for anywhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 soccer, lacrosse, flag football and rugby fields in a given week," Montgomery says. "If you're looking at painting those fields at least once a week, if not more, that is a huge labor draw that takes bodies and talent to put out a consistent, professional product."
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, it's taking away jobs,' " says Turf Tank's Aldridge. "I don't think that we've ever had anybody buy the robot and then turn around and fire somebody. That doesn't happen, because there's plenty of work to be done. If a person's job is to go out, lay strings and paint 16 fields, well, their other job duties are to set up soccer goals, put out trash cans, mow grass and weed — all the other things that facility operations people have to do. Those tasks still have to be done, and they can be done while the robot is painting. What it does is maximize productivity."
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "A satellite view of turf care." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.