GPS: Fertilizing with silicon

Instituting the Global Positioning System, generally referred to as GPS, has totally changed management of transportation, agriculture and power utilities. It is finding its way into computers, vehicles and even outdoor power equipment. What does it provide for turf and golf-course managers? Within the next five years or so, expect it to reduce your environmental impacts, your labor needs and your costs. But realizing these benefits requires preparation and planning, both of which you must do soon to gain the maximum savings from these emerging technologies.

GPS has enormous popular appeal, and has become a multi-billion dollar industry in the past decade. Designed and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Global Positioning System provides users with worldwide information on their location (including elevation) and speed.

How GPS works

GPS requires two basic components to work: A constellation of 24 satellites that whiz around the earth, constantly transmitting their location by high-frequency radio, and a user's receiver to pick up and analyze the transmitted satellite locations to figure out where it is. Every satellite carries an atomic clock on board, so the receiver provides the date and time as well as its location.

The modern GPS receivers you see in cars or on boats provide locations accurate to about 50 feet, sometimes a little better. Here lies the first problem in using GPS for turf management — it's not precise enough for real work. Fifty feet isn't worth worrying about if you're a ship captain in the middle of the Atlantic, or the pilot of a jet moving at 400 mph, but a superintendent needs to worry about trees, traps and greens, all much smaller than 50 feet across (see photo, page Golf 33).

The accuracy of a GPS location is improved by correcting the transmitted satellite location for various technical errors. Two different branches of the federal government have two different programs for correcting the signal. The Coast Guard has already established an extensive correction network called Differential GPS, or DGPS. DGPS requires you to purchase an extra radio receiver along with the GPS unit, but provides position with an accuracy of 3 to 10 feet (see photo, page Golf 33). DGPS receivers are available from many manufacturers. The DGPS network will eventually cover the entire country (not just the ocean), and already includes well over 75 percent of the continental United States.

The Federal Aviation Administration is installing its own correction system, designed for airplanes but useable by all. The WAAS program will provide 3- to 10-foot accuracy across most of the country. The beauty of WAAS is that no extra radio receiver is needed. WAAS-ready receivers also are available from many manufacturers. WAAS is newer than DGPS, and WAAS receivers are just reaching the broader market. For either type of receiver, expect to pay anywhere from $500 to $1000 for a rugged, ready-to-use unit that you can install on a piece of equipment.

GPS and what to plan for

Assume for a moment that you have a piece of equipment — a mower, for example — outfitted with a DGPS or WAAS receiver. Believe it or not, you're no better off. That receiver alone won't help you do anything better! After all, you can't tell where that piece of equipment is from your office or even from the next green over. This is the second problem with GPS. “GPS does nothing by itself, it only tells you where you are,” notes Dana Lunn, director of the Center for Advanced Turf Technology at The Toro Co. Instead, he and others in the industry suggest that course superintendents should think of GPS as part of a larger system of digital course management. This is why you need to plan now if you want your course to utilize this technology.

The first part of this digital system to reach the commercial stage will be mowers with GPS receivers and radio transmitters built into their engines. Chuck Greif, manager of Worldwide Marketing and Development for Golf and Turf at John Deere, predicts that Deere will have such products in two to three years. “These small diesel or gas machines will send back system analysis and information” as well as their location to the front office. The information might include hours operated, temperature and emission information — even cutting height. The two-way radio link will allow superintendents to not only locate their equipment, but also schedule maintenance on the equipment. Some systems will allow superintendents to communicate with the operator in his or her native language. Lunn notes that while there is some “Big Brother push back” from operators of this type of equipment, it does allow superintendents to examine which operators are most efficient in using and caring for equipment.

Such systems will require two-way wireless connections, training for operators and computer hardware and software to display and record the data. Greif estimates such systems might be available in 24 to 36 months. Both he and Lunn stress that effective superintendents will control all of this action while out on the golf course, using their palm-held computers. Superintendents who plan to use this system will need operators who are comfortable using digital equipment, a plan for installing wireless networks (including where to put the transceivers and where to put the power lines needed to drive them) and the capital to outfit all their equipment with $1,000 GPS/transmitter units.

What's the pay back for all of this? Better allocation of resources, better preventative maintenance and reduced labor costs. With current costs, this type of system may not have a great cost-to-benefit ratio; however, Lunn is optimistic that the cost of this technology will drop rapidly in the next few years due both to the almost inevitable reduction in computer costs and the equally inevitable increase in regulation and its cost.

The next step: integrating GIS

The next step in development will take much more planning and money. The ultimate GPS machine would be one that did its job without any supervision or operator. This robotic technology is six to ten years away. Because of the 3- to 10-foot limitation on GPS accuracy, it would be difficult at this point to direct a simple mower to run in even, consistently parallel lines. (See Figure 1, page Golf 37.)

A larger problem exists as well. Even the simplest machine — a robotic mower, for example — has to know where the fairway is to cut it well. To do this, the mower needs a “map” of the course to determine whether it's on a green, a fairway, a rough or a water hazard.

So, notes Lunn, there are four steps to having fully automated equipment on the golf course (assuming that we have GPS-equipped equipment, as we discussed above). They are:

Before we can use GPS as a part of course management and to save money, we will need to complete at least the first three of these steps. (The final step, automated sensors, is probably not in our near future). GPS is just the first step. The second step is an essential step in moving toward a completely automated system: a digital (computerized) map of the golf course. These types of computer programs, which are simply computer documents that store information based on locations, are called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS.

All GIS systems arrange data in layers. One layer (see Figure 2, page Golf 40) might represent the type of turf; the next layer, topography; the next, irrigation systems; and a fourth will have a location grid, and so on. The beauty of GIS lies in its ability to answer questions based on location. For example, a supervisor could request a map highlighting all areas of the course within 20 feet of a stream or lake, and that haven't been sprayed in the past three days, and that are within sight of the clubhouse. The GIS program then shows, graphically, where those portions of the course are.

A number of companies produce GIS systems, just like many software companies produce word-processor programs. The industry standard is the ESRI package, but many other programs are available. Producing a GIS map of your course can be difficult. New courses are almost certainly being designed on a GIS platform. Thus, part of the original contract for a new course can include delivery of all necessary GIS files.

If you manage an older course, you will have to have them made. This is an enormously time-consuming process. Every significant feature on the course — edges of roughs, fairways, greens and hazards, tees, trees, cart ways and even irrigation heads — has to be located to within a foot. Then this information must be carefully coded and entered into the database. A thorough job for a typical 54-hole complex could cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. This work can be done by an individual with a GPS on his back as he walks the entire course while logging features into a database, or by locating features on aerial photographs, available from government agencies or custom-flown. In either case, this is work that you must outsource to a specialist.

Automating equipment

Once in hand, the GIS system provides the base map for all automated turf activities. In the future, you will be able to use the system to indicate the desired mower height, irrigation requirements, fertilizer and pesticide programs for each turf area. Then GPS and radio-equipped machines will automatically adjust themselves to these pre-set levels. On spray vehicles, for example, the boom will turn itself on and off at the proper times, regardless of the driving skill of the operator. These operators will really just “ride shotgun” on the machines, correcting their steering and servicing them as needed, but no more. Best of all, each machine reports to the database exactly what was done, where and at what time. This will provide you with accurate, real-time knowledge and control of turf-maintenance activities. Even with this technology, it is important to remember that the uncertainties of GPS — 3 to 10 feet, at best — will limit this automated activity until some future technology makes the system more accurate.

The benefits of this degree of control will be enormous. Superintendents can stipulate “no spray” zones around sensitive areas, which will reduce consumption of chemicals, lower emissions and run-off and reduce operator exposure. Courses will require fewer operators as well, who will need less training and fewer skills. Ideally, the automated nature of all this activity might allow the work to be done early in the morning and even at night, allowing more play time on the course.

Where do these technologies stand now? Deere has prototyped a GPS-controlled sprayer, according to Greif, but he anticipates that commercial application is still five years away. Lunn agrees, noting that “commercialization is a ways away.” Both companies are planning on using their agricultural divisions, where GPS/GIS technologies are further along, to accelerate their turf development. Expect GPS/GIS-ready equipment from these companies by 2006.

Textron is another manufacturer looking into GPS systems for golf courses. Textron's subsidiary E-Z-Go already utilizes GPS (the ProLink system) as an aid to golfers in its golf carts. Peter Whurr, vice president of product development with Textron, explains that on the golf maintenance side, his company — like Deere and Toro — is developing GPS/GIS for course maintenance. Though it is an active area of development for Textron, it isn't clear when this technology will be marketed, according to Whurr.

Remember, though, that building a GIS system can start on your course now.

How one company puts it all together

One company that has put GPS and GIS to work in golf is Tyler Enterprises, a regional fertilizer manufacturer based in Illinois. According to Bruce Jasurda, chief operating officer, Tyler's development of a customized fertilizer application system began simply enough: “We wanted to sell more fertilizer.” Their Greenlinks application system involves all of the steps noted above. The company constructs a GIS-based map of a client's course, including the fairways, greens and tees. This information is transferred to the application equipment, which shows the operator where to go and notifies him or her of mistakes or errors. The sprayer itself contains three different fertilizer formulations, so a precise blend can be applied to roughs or fairways as needed. At the end of the application, graphic output details the applied materials.

It is interesting to note that the GIS itself is “not a profit center” according to Jasurda, but a marketing tool. He notes, as did Greif and Lunn, that one of the attractions this service has to superintendents is the cost savings. His clients can reduce both labor and storage costs, while increasing the efficiency of their turf maintenance.

While it lacks the wireless communications to a computer, Tyler's equipment does show how the three technologies we've examined are ready for use in turf management. The advantage of the Tyler system, as with any outsourcing, is that a course does not need to invest in the technology, which may be expensive.

Any course wanting to use this technology on its own needs to examine the cost-benefit ratio of

  1. buying new, wireless and GPS-ready equipment for the course;

  2. constructing a GIS map of the course; and

  3. training labor to use all this new equipment.

As Greif notes, all of these “costs are not far out of line now. Eventually there has to be a return (of savings) to the golf course, the distributor and the supplier” for this technology to become commonplace. This time will be sooner for those who start planning now.

Dr. Larry McKenna is president of Working Knowledge, Inc. (Overland Park, Kan.).

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