Can a Drone Make Golf Course Maintenance More Efficient?

Technology firms seeking to introduce their products to the golf course industry have a challenge in bringing tech to one of the oldest – and most traditional – sports being played today.  A typical approach to a cash flow-sensitive client would be to sell products and services that deliver cost savings.  But to a golf course superintendent, one needs not only to appeal to the cost side of the equation, but also the impact on their most limited resource – time.

Unmanned Aerial Systems, more commonly known as Drones or UAS’ are being used by nearly every industry from farming to construction, movies, and real estate, with no signs of slowing down.  However, drones in the golf industry are just beginning to gain traction.  A new service called GreenLinkTM, aims to free up the resource that superintendents need most – time!

At Golf Property Analysts (GPA), we have been using a drone for better perspective in photographing our appraisal and consulting subject properties for about a year.  The commercial use of a drone requires a FAA “Part 107” license to ensure legal and safe operation, which involves some aeronautical education and passing an FAA administered exam.  GPA recently has partnered with Cavalry Drone Services, or CDS, to market golf course-specific proprietary drone technology.  Applying tried and true methods used in agricultural applications, CDS has developed a host of specialized Golf Course services that range from marketing to maintenance.  Most notably, GreenLink TM greens management service provides near real-time analysis of the health of every green multiple times per day, and delivers a report electronically, directly to the smartphone of the superintendent and anyone else on his/her team so authorized.

A drone can not only monitor greens faster than anyone on a Gator, but by using sophisticated multi-spectral cameras can measure turf health with substantially higher fidelity than even the most accurate, traditional methods.  GreenLinkTM technology combines Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a precision agriculture method which exploits data from the non-visible infrared light spectrum with CDS’ proprietary processing systems tailored to the unique characteristics of each client’s facility, to deliver turf health reports minutes after being collected.  This not only frees time for the entire maintenance team by informing them exactly where the greens need attention but has a beneficial trickle-down effect on expendable resources such as water, seeding, pesticides and their associated labor.

Let’s examine the economics. The first question is, how much time does a crew member spend on each green during a spot inspection, followed by how many inspections does he/she do per day, and at what hourly rate?  Assuming 5-10 min per inspection per green and a minimum of 2/per day, that’s between 90-180 labor-hours per month.  At a high-end club, inspections likely occur more frequently than twice daily, and at a club with a smaller staff, the person inspecting might be an assistant superintendent given that the field techs might not be skilled enough.  Using a drone reduces the same inspection time to 30 man-hours per month (30 min/inspection, 2/day, 30 days), and that person could be doing other tasks during most of that time.  This also does not account for transit time, which varies from course to course.

The next potential savings area is with consumables.  Since an NDVI report is so accurate, it’s possible that the course would require less or more application of consumables in their pursuit of perfect greens.  With the former, savings will be achieved but not precisely quantified.  In the latter, it provides a better-quality product and eliminates the possibility that the course will lose revenue due to poor playing conditions (obviously more critical to a limited revenue facility as opposed to an upscale club).  The equivalent value of never losing revenue due to conditions will be different for every course, but nonetheless is of great value.  Ultimately, using NDVI ensures Golf Courses only use the resources needed to maintain the desired conditions.  A course that is struggling will know exactly where to put their resources to make improvements, and a course that has perfect conditions will be able to accomplish the same results with less resources, labor and consumables.

GreenLink’s companion service, TurfLink, uses similar technology but for the fairways and periphery turf off the green.  For TurfLink, the ROI also depends on how well the course manages consumables.  The benchmark is applying precision agriculture numbers.  Farms regularly see as high as a 30% reduction in consumable resources using NDVI techniques, which is well established.  In the past, NDVI data was received via satellite at a tremendous expense, however by using drones at a fraction of the cost, farms are now able to achieve an impressive ROI.  It’s harder to calculate this on a golf course, but invariably every course uses more resources than needed on fairways to ensure high quality conditions, simply because it’s easier to just add more with little downsides (unlike on the greens).

It is important to note that GreenLink and TurfLink are not intended to replace the intimate and valuable knowledge a superintendent has with his/her course.  In fact, quite the opposite is true as these services leverage a superintendents’ expertise, allowing them to do more course management with less resources across the board and provide maximum flexibility and efficiency for a course maintenance team.  Thanks to these revolutionary new services, golf course facilities can have all the available information they need to meet their condition goals, and the days of the superintendent being tethered to the course during the playing season are over!