• Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Opinion piece: Data-driven sports turf management soon to be the norm

Smart technologies and techniques can ease the work of the groundsman or greenkeeper but also help commercialise the playing field. “We are only at the beginning of what is possible. Technology can help save time but also optimise the use of resources and techniques to maximise the use of the pitch and improve player efficiency or recovery,” Arnoud Fiolet of Rhenac GreenTec states.

The amount of automated and robotic tools and solutions for maintaining sports fields has been steadily increasing in recent years. What started with automatic sprinkling and fertilisation has now progressed to autonomous rakes and brushes, robotic mowers and robotic line-marking equipment, to temperature and moisture sensors and entire (autonomous) analysis units, to grass growth lighting and disease control methods, as well as industrial fans to lower the temperature inside the stadium bowl. At present, none of these communicate with each other.

“It all started very low-key and I expect it to evolve as it does with many new developments: there are many different initiatives all with their own apps and all with their own elements. Eventually, this is going to grow towards one or two integrated systems that serve the various zones of a sports field separately, based on the specific needs identified for that part of the pitch. That starts with a revolution in identifying those specific needs. Right now, we identify what is present or missing in the soil, such as soil temperature or acidity or soil moisture content. We are going to get systematics that can analyse the grass at the atomic level, will determine what stresses it has and what causes those stresses, and thus determine what that grass needs: systematics that look into that grass plant in the same way we look at our health. Something similar is already happening in our kitchens. We already have fridges that, based on their content, produce you a recipe for a menu or place an order themselves when an ingredient is missing for something that has already been determined to be healthy for you. I expect that to be commonplace in 10 years’ time. That revolution will also start happening in sports field management within 10 to 15 years. The technology to look into the grass plant, the technology to control those underlying systems, that’s closer than three years.”

Data matching field to player

The knowledge, time or resources for data analysis is something that is currently pursued by those groundsmen who are responsible for stadium surfaces. “Within the stadium segment, you have different types of clubs that are each doing data management in their own way. However, I believe that in two or three years, everyone will be doing data management. The way in which it is interpreted, the way in which it is used and the way in which it becomes applicable, that, of course, differs enormously. That also has to do with the budgets that stadiums have and to what extent they can interpret that data and what they can do with it. You have datasets on how healthy the grass is and what it costs to achieve that or keep it good. That’s one element, one angle. But you can also look at what that grass pitch does to the player. Then you go more in the medical direction. Trainers will, from a player’s efficiency perspective, start thinking about whether they want a player to play on a pitch that is too hard, or have him train on a pitch that is harder or softer than the pitch he will play the game on. If they are too far apart, it could well have a negative impact on his health. I wouldn’t be surprised if the football club soon says: We have three types of pitches. We have the stadium pitch and a copy of it in terms of hardness and load on our training complex. But we also have another type of pitch where our injured players can regenerate – fields that are a bit softer and safer for those recovering from an injury.”

Implications for the manager

The developments will soon mean a different way of working: from determining what the current situation is based on a visual or technical determination of soil or field conditions, to anticipate and act based on a set of data coming from a large number of sources. Does that require a different type of worker? “I think you are going to see a number of developments to be combined, but that said, the role of the groundsman will not change. In fact, I expect that the role of a qualified, experienced groundsman in operating the venue will become even more important. Those who understand the art of fine-tuning the technology will apply fertiliser, water and light in a much more targeted way. In this way, they will maximise the investment, but, above all, save on costs. Field managers and greenkeepers will have to start making trade-offs. Start thinking about: OK, what can I do myself and what will the system do for me? What help do I need for that as well? I expect some major shifts.

“Initially, data is very fine and very scary and interpretation is difficult. You will need help with that. Then those systems become easier and more accessible and also more unambiguous in the scope of data they provide. Now it is roughly 90-10: 90% is decided by the groundsman himself and 10% is supporting data. The data now supports or frames the gut feelings and insight of the groundsman. But it ends up, in my opinion, with a voice-controlled AI management system that automates grass maintenance 90% of the time, with the groundsman hardly directly being involved anymore. The manager might be 10% initiating with 90% data and that 90% is controlling. I expect that by 2035, it will be the norm that the groundsman will be part of the management team of a stadium. His expertise will determine how the pitch is going to be utilised, for both hosting matches but also concerts or other events. At present, that is determined solely by the commercial department, after which the groundsman is given the thankless task of resolving its impact on the pitch. That will change in the future.

“The great thing is also that it can make the profession of groundsman or greenkeeper more attractive to the future generation, because you are going to be working with a lot more technology. The job will become increasingly interesting and also much more data driven. The same happened to car mechanics. They have to constantly keep up with the software developments, with the technological developments that are happening with cars. That is really inspiring because you are learning for life. And we are obviously going to see some of that development in the field of sports field management as well.

“At the same time, embracing data will increase respect for the profession. Thanks to data, management will soon listen better to the groundsman, and they will succeed in demonstrating what plans will mean for the management of the surface. Just like the car mechanic, who, in the past, would give advice which you could chose to ignore, nowadays, they present you a printout of their analysis unit to warn you of the possible consequences if you continue to drive. Most will think twice before ignoring that.”

The arrival of tech specialists?

Each technology currently uses its own software or platform. Who is going to pull the cart to tie those together so that the operator can take maximum advantage of the alignment and data between them? “There are a number of systems that are very important. Sprinkler systems and air cannons can be controlled quite easily. I think particularly the heavier substructure systems, combined with the grass grow lights, is where the bigger integrations are going to happen. I can very well imagine that loose consortia or open IOT standards will emerge, just like you see with the developments in terms of software for websites. I personally call that the Internet of Grass, because there is no single vendor that is going to tie itself exclusively to the technology of a specific vendor of another system or technology. So it’s going to be an open source model with a common language. Once you succeed in linking that knowledge to activities, you’ve made it. However, this will not be at the expense of the groundsman or greenkeeper. In the end, turf management is a science that we cannot do without.

“I would say that the goal of the standards that will be developed should be to make it as easy as possible for users. They should be able to assess the effects of software modifications on the turf and act accordingly. In the next two to three years, however, the market will remain chaotic because of the lack of a common language for the technology and the fact that it is still in its infancy. Now we have datasets from 10 years of research. In five years’ time, it will be 15 years of research and experience in 50 stadiums or 100 stadiums. From now on, development will start growing exponentially, all to the benefit of the groundsman.”


The views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the publisher

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