In general, the number of people on a typical golf course maintenance staff has decreased in the past decade and many superintendents are faced with high expectations and minimal staff to deliver the best product possible. With limited staff, the ability to identify problems across the many acres of a golf course can be compromised. To help address this issue, some courses have adopted aerial drone technology to more accurately and efficiently identify turf stress. While the drones are currently incapable of differentiating between stresses such as drought, compaction and disease, they do provide imagery that turf managers can use to identify stress that may not be seen from the ground.
Some courses are using drones four to six days per week during the growing season to keep up with daily changes in turf conditions. The drone can be programmed to fly the same route daily, capturing aerial and thermal imagery. The imagery is then overlaid onto digital maps to facilitate scouting efforts. Superintendents using this technology often gather the assistant, spray technician and irrigation manager to review the digital imagery hole by hole. This 15- to 20-minute exercise is invaluable for efficiently allocating resources and addressing problems. Much of the information from drone flights is used to modify irrigation scheduling to improve moisture consistency, reduce water use and improve playing conditions.
It is essential to ground-truth the information produced by the drone to get the most benefit from the imagery. For example, collect soil moisture data using a handheld moisture meter in areas where the drone camera identified potential turf issues. With repeated drone use and soil moisture data collection, users can begin to more accurately interpret the digital imagery. In other words, they may be able to correctly interpret the digital images to identify if an area is wet, dry, diseased or stressed due to traffic.
The detail and range of information produced by drone imagery is currently limited, but the technology continues to improve and drone use is expanding. Superintendents are finding ways to optimize their operations based on the information gleaned from routinely flying a drone over their golf course. As superintendents become more adept drone users, they are able to use the imagery to refine irrigation scheduling, prioritize areas for aeration or sand topdressing, demonstrate the impact of shade to owners and green committee members and potentially manage disease in a more proactive manner.