Emerging technologies: a look into the future

By Dana Lonn, PE

Sports field managers, superintendents, equipment managers and other turf professionals are consistently interested in the future of the turf industry and what lies ahead for the next generation of products and solutions. This innate curiosity is driven in part by the resourcefulness of the profession itself, and constant efforts to improve efficiency and productivity.

With that in mind, manufacturers, including Toro, continue to look at the immediate and long-range needs of the industry and focus on developing meaningful solutions to address the challenges of today’s sports field managers and superintendents.

Troubled water

One of the main challenges we face as a society is water conservation. It’s an important issue that impacts everyone around the world. At Toro, being good stewards of the land and water is a key focus in everything we do and the innovations we bring to market. Turf professionals have an important role to play when it comes to water use efficiency, and are increasingly turning to new technology and methods to make sure they are part of the solution.

Dwindling water supplies and increasing costs are already forcing professionals to manage turf with less water. What we have found at Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology is that there is an opportunity to improve the current situation. By increasing efficiency and improving application practices, turf managers are able to maintain green spaces with less water and other inputs, while still achieving the results they desire.

According to the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL) and the National Drought Mitigation Center, drought conditions are expected to persist in the coming months throughout much of California, western Nevada, southeast Oregon, southern Arizona and New Mexico (http://drought.unl.edu/NewsOutreach/MonthlySummary/April2016DroughtandImpactSummary.aspx).

Furthermore, many communities across the Southwest have implemented mandatory water use restrictions for residents, businesses and communities alike. This has had an impact on sports fields and golf courses in the region, and has encouraged practitioners, irrigation manufacturers, researchers, and water purveyors to take a hard look at how they can help tackle this issue—both in the short-term in dealing with the current drought and in the long-term by focusing on water conservation as a much larger and permanent solution.

We believe that data is, and will continue to become even more important in understanding how best to manage turf with less water. Soil sensors are a simple way to precisely measure soil moisture and provide the necessary information to deliver a more accurate figure on how much and how often to water. Soil sensors tell turf professionals how much water is available in the soil for the plant to use, much like the fuel gauge in a car indicates how much fuel is available. Sensors help turf managers make decisions on when water is required, and not needed to prevent overwatering.

We have also developed a solution that maps soil moisture, as well as salinity, compaction, overall turf quality and elevation data. This additional information can help turf managers make more informed decisions on where to place sensors, what areas may be under stress, and how to improve irrigation uniformity to improve overall turf health.
Thanks to technology, turf managers are now able to install networking infrastructure on sports fields or golf courses to provide real-time data regarding the status of the turf. We can even run different programs by irrigation zone to deliver precisely the amount of water needed in a particular area, essentially eliminating water waste. The next generation of this process could include changing the way we monitor the turf completely, through placing sensors on mowers and the use of drones and advanced sensors that can provide important supplementary or complementary data to help manage precious resources with a simple fly-over.

Advances in battery technology

Innovations in overall battery life, utilization of alternative materials, and decreasing battery weight have been a continuous effort for decades. Research teams around the world, from a variety of different sectors, have been trying to develop the next groundbreaking battery solution, and the research is promising. Lithium-ion batteries have made significant progress in the past few years and continue to improve. Lithium batteries have made electric vehicles possible for city vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt and the Tesla. Experimenting with new metals and chemistries has helped develop a long list of emerging technologies that may surpass the lithium-ion battery. Materials like aluminum and zinc have entered the realm as potential solutions. As alternative fuel sources continue to be a driver for manufacturers, distributors and end users alike, we can expect battery research to be an area of focus for research and development teams for years to come

Assisted and autonomous vehicles

With significant investments from organizations like Google, Uber and most of the major automobile manufacturers, autonomous vehicles are making a name in mainstream media as the “next big thing.” Although there are hurdles to be crossed, the day when driverless vehicles take to the road is within sight. Adaptive cruise control, collision sensors, and lane departure warnings are all appropriate steps to autonomous vehicles. Turf care is a potential early adopter of autonomous technology. Turf care is very routine and we do not have to interact with other non-automated vehicles. The main challenge for manufacturers is centered on making existing technology both productive, affordable and safe.

Autonomous vehicles may be able to fill employment gaps as sports field managers often have an increasingly difficult time finding skilled turf care professionals. At sports complexes where there can be a shortage of labor, an autonomous mowing unit would free up the available workforce to take on additional tasks. Another area where autonomous vehicles can prove value is in their ability to deliver better overall consistency. Automation takes human error out of the equation and can help keep operators off of steep slopes or from other potentially hazardous terrain.

Art vs. science

Professional turf care is considered an art by many in the industry, and we’re encouraging turf managers to move more towards science and rely on measurements and data to provide the best solutions. The future of successful turf care is firmly rooted in precision turf management. Given the growing importance of taking care of our environment, sports field managers and superintendents, along with manufacturers and other professionals, must continue the adoption of technology to make more informed, efficient and productive decisions when it comes to managing turf.

The transition from art to science in the sports turf industry won’t be an easy one, but turf care professionals who can successfully accomplish this and thrive in a wireless, interconnected world will be better equipped and informed to take action with their turf where and when it is needed.

The industry has made great progress, but the future is even more exciting in terms of what we can do, together, to care for the turf and our outdoors!

About Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology (CATT)

Focused on advancing the company’s innovative leadership, Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology (CATT) has responsibility for developing technologies that benefit both customers and the environment. Comprised of a team of leading agronomists and product development professionals, CATT identifies emerging trends in turf care markets and, through the application of appropriate technologies, helps discover new solutions to increase productivity, conserve water, reduce fuel consumption, and improve growing conditions. In working with customers, academic institutions and leading researchers, the group has been influential in the area of robotics, hydrogen fuel cells, advanced battery technologies, precision irrigation and soil moisture sensing.

The author is managing director for the Center for Advanced Turf Technology (CATT) at The Toro Company.