Water is one of my favorite issues because of all of the different opinions about how golf courses should be watered.

With the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and all the controversy surrounding the design and layout of the course, I’m guessing the brown fescue and use of water is going to take a back seat in the discussions. It’s also a unique sand-based property that can’t be found (climate included) in many parts of the U.S. It’s a unique situation that probably shouldn’t be in the forefront of golf course watering requirements. There has been, however, a lot of recent media coverage surrounding the use of water for managing turfgrass. When California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statewide 25 percent mandatory reduction in water use, there were discussions about how this would impact stands of grass. As sources dry up throughout California and the Southwest, attention has to be turned to how we are going to handle the issue moving forward.

As a technology geek, there is something to utilizing technology to help reduce and manage the amount of water being used in agriculture. Many superintendents are already using sensor technology, including in-ground sensors that monitor soil moisture in real time, while others opt to use one of the TDR sensors to manually detect moisture levels. Both systems offer powerful information that, if used regularly, can manage moisture levels.

Look beyond the obvious sensor technology. Some less than obvious technologies have the potential to address these issues in a meaningful way. There seems to be a push for the use of technology in the last year in the form of mobile applications or software technology. Examples of this include something as simple as my mobile app Turfpath or as detailed and sophisticated as Dr. Latin’s Turfmetrics app used to assist in fungicide applications.

Specifically with water in mind, two companies in particular that I’ve been working with for less than a year have the potential to change the way golf courses (and turf in general) manage water: OnLink and GreenSight. Both technologies are in their infancy, but they represent the future of golf course management.

In the not-so-distant future, collection, analyses and interpretation of data will make the decision-making process for superintendents easier. OnLink, founded by Walt Norley and Matt Shaffer, is a cloud-based decision-making platform. The system automatically pulls in data from a variety of available resources on an individual golf course. Once pulled in, the data can be used to manage the course parameters to the specific conditions expected at the golf course.

Moisture data from in-ground (or manually collected) moisture sensors can be correlated with other factors such as green speed or firmness. Alerts can be setup to automatically send actionable inputs directly to a manager’s mobile phone. While OnLink is more in-depth and powerful than just moisture management, its ability to fine tune the use of water on a golf course will be a key component for many.
Drones are another exciting technology. These unmanned aircraft offer a different perspective of the course that we can’t see while standing on the ground. Large-scale inconsistencies in turf health may jump out when viewed from above.

GreenSight takes advantage of the technology to collect daily images of an entire golf course. This is where my geekiness kicks in. The visual images provided are fine, but the real technology is in the use of infrared and thermal imagery. University researchers use infrared/near infrared technology routinely in their trials to determine Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI). In essences, the NDVI is used as an indicator of plant health (or plant stress). Thermal data collected on these flights adds the benefit of determining canopy temperature and soil moisture. In an ideal situation, I can imagine a time where your drones fly the course collecting numerous bits of data. The data is automatically uploaded to the cloud, analyzed by sophisticated computers, interpreted by formulas and predictive models, and actionable texts are routinely sent to those managing the systems.

Incorporate this mapping and data with GPS-controlled sprayers, automated irrigation systems and playability characteristics, and you have a winning combination. Technology will never replace the need for educated superintendents and the information will only be as good as those making the decisions. However, the use of automated technology will continue to change the way golf courses are managed, and in the end, will help micromanage our inputs…including water.

John E. Kaminski, Ph.D. is an associate professor, Turfgrass Science, and director of the Golf Course Turfgrass Management Program at Penn State University. You can reach him at kaminski@psu.edu.