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July 2019

Automation and Smart Devices Change the Landscape

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By David Gould

New technology aimed at turfgrass perfection keeps getting invented, some of it game-changing, some likely not. Relatively new on the scene is a device with a science-fiction sound to it — the “time-domain reflectometer.” It won’t transport you 50 years into the future, but it does let you measure and monitor soil moisture with new levels of precision.

TDR moisture meters, either handheld or mounted on a two-wheeled stand, reveal the inherent moisture-retention capacity of all the soils in a golf property’s microclimates. It’s a matter of riding the course during a normal weather spell, selecting sites — two or three on a tee box, six on a large green and a dozen-plus high and low spots along your fairway — and inserting the device’s twin tines down into root zones.

Some units have Bluetooth sending capability, delivering the data straight to your office computer. Readings will range from about 10 to 20 percent, and you’ll often be surprised at the degree of variation in the values. With these numbers recorded, you then run sprinklers as normal, and repeat the measurements until they tell you what adjustments are called for. Water savings, consistency across playing surfaces and perhaps some added disease resistance are the upsides of a $1,000 to $2,000 TDR investment.

Payroll savings (or redeployment of the man-hours currently on the budget) are the principal benefit envisioned for autonomous fairway mowers. A Salt Lake City manufacturer, FireFly Automatix, recently showed its GPS-based system and explained the benefits at a turf producers trade show.

“To date, we’ve autonomously mowed 100 acres of sod field,” says Eric Aston, the company’s lead mechanical engineer. “We’re pretty close to fully commercializing what we’ve developed for the turf-nursery setting — where the business case for mowing without a human operator is obvious. Actual fairways are another degree of complexity.”

The immediate takeaway: If you’re buying pallets of sod, you may be paying less because the nursery has passed on lower production costs to you.
Meanwhile greens-mowing through automated units is a real thing at Presidio Golf Club in San Francisco — described in recent press reports as the first U.S. course to rely completely on robots to cut all its greens.

Cub Cadet Turf, marketed by Ohio-based MTD Products, is the brand name of this disruptive entry into turf care — including at the famed Wimbledon tennis center. Interestingly, it uses sonar rather than GPS for its guidance system, though the next generation will rely on GPS. According to the manufacturer, the human-error factor that has long caused greens to lose their original perimeter dimensions is addressed by this robot, which adds precision to its coverage area through repetition of the task.

A spirit of innovation was certainly at work in the development of the vibratory greens roller, in use for a decade-plus but mainly found in the very high end of the market. Attachable to a triplex greens mower in place of the cutting blades, this piece of machinery is able to smooth and firm the soil beneath the grass and even “shake” floating sand particles down to the root base before rolling pressure gets exerted.

Missouri-based Turfline Inc. is the force behind this gadget, one that superintendents and course architects have seen as a good answer to the green-speed-versus-plant-stress question. In other words, Stimpmeter readings can hit desired targets even with a higher mowing height, thus greater plant leaf area, which Mother Nature generally prefers.

Not visible to the naked eye, but still a big disrupter in turf-care technology, SubAir has done some iterative innovating of late. The add-on is called TurfWatch, which Jeremy Reese, the company’s director of sales and service, describes as a management and monitoring platform far beyond what was previously available.

“This is a technology based on touch screens and smartphone access, with big projectors in the maintenance center picking up data sent wirelessly from each hole based on 20-minute updates,” says Reese. “So, picture information on soil moisture, temperature, oxygen levels and salinity, delivered in different languages depending on your part of the world, all geared toward the optimal aerobic growing conditions.”

Come to think of it, maybe we have been transported 50 years into the future.

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.

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