As the baseball season opens this week in the U.S., one of the pre-game rituals is the chalking of the foul lines, batter’s boxes, and other areas, a mundane, but necessary task usually handled by one or more people of a grounds crew. Could a robot be handling this part of pre-game field preparation in the future?
While this may be a few or more years away from happening at the professional level, some municipal parks and recreation departments, strapped with funding issues that don’t affect the professional leagues, are exploring whether a robot that could chalk and paint lines for baseball, soccer, football, and lacrosse fields would save man-hours, materials, and provide a more accurate marking of the fields than humans.
Such was the case with the Decatur, Alabama, parks and recreation department, which started using a robot from Turf Tank, the U.S. subsidiary of Intelligent Marking of Denmark.
The company was founded by co-CEOs Anders Ulrik Sørensen and Andreas Ydesen as a high school project in 2014. The company’s robot is now automating the chalking and painting of sports facilities worldwide, a market the company said is worth more than $1 billion.
The patented Intelligent One robot can mark lines on all types of sports fields on natural grass or artificial turf, managed through a mobile app, eliminating the need for an operator while increasing precision and sustainability. Intelligent One is already sold or leased to non-profit sports organizations, municipalities, school districts, private schools, commercial contractors and professional teams in Europe, the U.S., Australia and Japan.
“Our customers have as many as 250 playing fields that need to be painted continuously, and once they try autonomous line marking with Intelligent One, they find that they cannot do without it,” Sørensen said in a statement. “With our robot, they just have to choose the desired sport type and field layout, push a button, and then the robot will drive from field to field and make sure that the lines are accurate and precise. Some of our customers have proven annual savings of nearly 70%.”
Cost and materials savings
In Decatur the parks and recreation department may not be saving that much, but the savings are significant, said Darrin Allen, sports field manager.
“We have to take care of so many sports fields weekly,” said Allen, pointing to his department’s oversight of 52 soccer, 28 softball/baseball, and seven football fields, as well as use of some of the fields for lacrosse and Ultimate (flying disc game). “My boss saw the robot on an online site a few years ago, we got in touch with the company and they did a demonstration for us. Ever since we started using it, it’s been great for us.”
According to Allen, the robot saves 75% of the man-hours typically needed to chalk and paint fields, freeing up his six-person staff for other duties. The robot also saves about 50% of the material needed.
The robot is simple to use, Allen adds. Using a tablet to create field line plans and the robot’s connection to a GPS satellite, a user can plan the markings for any field.
The GPS positioning means the markings are precise, adds Jason Aldridge, president of Turf Tank. “It has to be precise, otherwise it wouldn’t be a viable solution for the customer.”
If the field is uneven, which can throw a human worker’s lining efforts off by several inches, the robot uses the GPS positioning to self-correct, he adds. An operator can also adjust the speed of the robot to coincide with the field conditions (faster for smooth fields, slower for rough ones).
The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the robot is $49,999, and based on prior experience with customers, the return on investment is 12 to 18 months. Companies, organizations and local authorities can also choose to lease the robot system for less than $899 per month.
While that would seem out of the range of many municipal parks departments, Allen said the robot paid for itself within a year.
Aldridge added that customers report an average cost savings of as much as $2,000 per field per year. Some municipalities partner to share the cost, while the company also offers the robot as a service to help with any cost or budget concerns.