Innovative and autonomous ways to establish field quality

Data, and the ease with which this can be captured, can be a big contributor to the improvement of a sports field. Automated as well as robotized data capturing technologies are now available. This article looks at some of these solutions and discusses what they can offer.

Data, and the ease with which this can be captured, can be a big contributor to the improvement of a sports field. Automated as well as robotized data capturing technologies are now available. This article looks at some of these solutions and discusses what they can offer.

Modern groundsmen have access to a large selection of tools that can help them maintain or improve the playability of a pitch. Some of these technologies can be connected to other technologies or draw from other sources to improve their efficiency. However, the efficiency of these technologies is limited or even non-existed when the current status of the pitch is not captured.

Performing a thorough field test according to FIFA or UEFA standards can take up to two to four hours and requires at least one trained person and often an assistant to help carry around the various testing items and equipment. While conventional testing procedures can certainly deliver an accurate picture of the condition of the field, their reliance on the manual capturing of the test results also means that there is the risk of errors. When these go unnoticed or are not acted upon, activities to prepare the field will be fruitless, as they will be based on incorrect data.

Several companies have seized the opportunity to eradicate the chance of mistakes. They have also improved the process and made it less demanding. “The easier and faster it is to establish the condition of the field, the more likely it will be that people will do it frequently,” says Reece Watson of Raw Stadia consultants. “People love data and will use the knowledge to immediately start planning improvements. We have noticed that, as soon as people get the results, they will try to understand the abnormalities and will act accordingly,” Menke Steenbergen of tech-company HI-Sports remarks. “The regular establishing of the condition of a field will also help to reduce costs and promote sustainable practices whereby maximum use is made of as little water, chemicals and energy as possible,” Erwann Lompech-Leneveu of tech start-up E-Nano points out. All three have their own solution.

Automating the process

The Raw Stadia solution uses an adjusted Advanced Artificial Athlete (AAA) as well as traction tester. “The AAA weighs 10kg, while the rotational traction tester only weighs 4.5kg. This makes them easier to transport,” Watson says. “The process is fully automated. All you have to do is to place them on the part of the field where you want to establish the condition, and push a button. The data collected is automatically added to the database. It’s a process that can be done by any person and will free up the groundsperson as the only thing that is left for the latter to do is to decide on the maintenance activities.” He says that it takes just 10 minutes to establish the condition of the field. “Clubs can measure all FIFA specified tests and much more. We also bring other data points in, such as weather, maintenance logs and in-ground sensors.“ The two testing devices are complemented by an app to establish the grass condition. “The app uses the camera-technique of a cell phone to take a picture of the surface, and a special algorithm will determine the health of the pitch. This data is also automatically added to our cloud-based platform.” Watson points out that the app is available for both android-based phones and iPhones. “Furthermore, we can add data collected by weather stations or sensors on the surface to the data lake. Collectively, the information will visualise the condition of the surface, allowing the groundsman to do data analysis or comparisons.”

HI Sports Hipster

Improved ergonomics

HI-Sports has introduced its Hipster. “Hipster saw the light after years of manual testing the pitch in the Johan Cruijff ArenA in Amsterdam. We were carrying multiple tools around, some heavy or difficult to carry,” Menke Steenbergen explains. It is a trolley that resembles a lawn mower but that incorporates the most important testing equipment required for a FIFA tests. “We measure the ball bounce, surface hardness, vertical deformation, energy restitution, shock absorption and rotational resistance.” The various measuring tools are all activated by the push of a button. “As you simply place the trolley over the area you want to measure, you don’t have to worry about setting up the testing equipment correctly. Once parked, the various tools will be angled correctly.” The complete unit weighs 60kg, and, depending on how many measurements one wants to take, can establish a full pitch surface condition within 45 minutes. “There is still space for two more instruments. Depending on the preferences indicated by the customers, this might be a sensor unit that establishes soil compaction, moisture and temperature in the soil or a camera that establishes the grass density, NDVI and grass density.” Hipster is already being used by 15 clubs in the Dutch Premiere League, and the innovation is still being further developed. “Our goal, ultimately, is to offer clients the option to select their own range of testing equipment and software analytic tools in the HI-Sports Dashboard.”

Robotized testing

Erwann Lompech-Leneveu is quick to point out that E-Nano’s Sprout is a fully autonomous system. “The current version establishes the surface hardness and consistency, compaction severity and consistency, the NDVI and consistency, uniformity of sward, the percentage of ground coverage and the volumetric soil moisture content and consistency.” The company is already working towards a unit that will also include the AAA testing device and a rotational resistance tester, as well as technologies that will establish the weed content to identify insect pests or diseases. 

“The priority for development is influenced by current weighting in the FIFA rating system and the easiness of ‘full automation’ of those test apparatuses. There is also some room to make the FIFA standards evolve in the future and better fit with autonomous solutions like Sprout.” Lompech-Leneveu believes that technologies like his robot have a future beyond professional sports venues. “Our solution is also aimed to support the daily activities of grounds teams, including their care of training facilities, and inform their decisions with the aim to optimise their operations, reduce costs, improve surface performance and promote sustainable practices.” As an example of the latter, Lompech-Leneveu points out that data obtained through regular measuring will help reduce the use of inputs such as water, chemicals and energy. “So the use case is not limited to the official assessment of pitches and includes a significant part of monitoring.”

The beauty of data

The three different solutions have different approaches and span different scopes. Yet they all simplify the process of establishing a (stadium) field condition and make it less demanding. They also reduce the likelihood of making mistakes, as all measurements collected are automatically captured. “Data is vital, as it is the point of departure for virtually every activity,” Steenbergen points out. “As the data is independently captured, it will allow people to make decisions based on the reality translated to numbers over personal feelings or preferences.” Steenbergen calls data addictive. “Once you start collecting it, you only want to get more and more frequent data to measure your improvements.”

All data collected by her Hipster is fed to a data-lake where the organisers of the Dutch football league has access to. “Clubs can access their own historical data through a dashboard, while the league will be able to benchmark the various stadium fields in the Dutch league.” Benchmarking is also something that Raw Stadia offers to its clients. “The data collected by our clients is stored in the cloud. The data remains the property of our clients. However, we do offer clients the option to have their data added to an anonymous database, which allows them to benchmark the performance of their field against other similar stadium fields,” Watson says. This database currently holds the results of approximately 85,000 measurements. Data collected by E-Nano is no different. “E-Nano offers high-resolution accurate, repeatable data that is timestamped and geotagged,”Lompech-Leneveu says. “All the data collected is made available live through our web app, allowing our customers to check the consistency of their pitches at both the pitch level and also in between pitches. Data is owned by our users and they can compare those results relative to recommended/custom thresholds.”

Empowering the groundsman

It is often pointed out that doing more testing helps groundsmen justify the need for their activities. It is also often noted that understanding a field condition helps venue owners to plan activities year-round, while limiting their impact on the surface. Watson, Steenbergen and Lompech-Leneveu all see additional benefits over and above this. “It will reduce costs by allowing you to only apply the qualities or volumes of water, chemicals or energy the surface actually needs meaning that it promotes sustainable practices at the venue,” Lompech-Leneveu comments. This cannot be underestimated, in a time where sustainability is increasingly dominating the debate. Watson and Steenbergen see additional benefits. “The data can also be plugged into the athlete management system,” Watson remarks. In doing so, coaches and team physiotherapists will be better able to maximize the capabilities of a player. Steenbergen takes it even a step further. “It will help correlate an injury to the condition of the pitch and will enable the technical team or grounds team to act accordingly.”

Establishing the quality of a pitch hands groundscare teams a baseline that they can use to plot their way forward. It can also be demanding. Use of automated or robotised solutions will speed up the process, reduce the possibility off errors or faults, and replace ergonomically challenging testing items.  

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