With an apparent increasing skills gap and potentially increasing disparity between the availability of the number of employees, and volunteers, to effectively look after the large number of sports pitches within the UK, there is going to be a significant need for accessible support services which aid decision making.
Resources are often limited, especially financial ones, so ensuring effective decisions are made on inputs in relation to desired outcomes can often mean the difference between success and sub-optimal outcomes, or even failures.
Artificial Intelligence will be the means by which these supportive decision making services are delivered. The wide range of variables, and interactions between them, which are involved in managing turfgrass surfaces to achieve desired outcomes in cost-effective ways requires intelligent systems which can support a manager in getting the most from what they have available.
‘Artificial Intelligence technologies aim to reproduce or surpass abilities (in computational systems) that would require ‘intelligence’ if humans were to perform it.’
(Source: O’Harain, et al (2017), quoted in Seldon, A. (2018) ‘The fourth education revolution. Will Artificial Intelligence liberate or infantilise humanity‘, p106, University of Buckingham Press)
Few people can afford the luxury of engaging one of the small number of capable consultants, who in turn cannot hope to satisfy the need of the vast number of questions and support needed by employees and volunteers in managing sports surfaces. The cost of consultancy services is also a significant barrier to the widespread dissemination of this type of expert advice anyhow. Artificial intelligence can break down this barrier, although this is an area few consultants might welcome as it will offer expert support at a fraction of the price. This should not actually negate the need for specialised one-to-one consultancies, but will eliminate the need for less specialised advice which is often wrapped up as something it isn’t.
Much of the support needed is also not extensive like that provided by a consultancy but more bite sized and quite specific to help better manage a surface. A good example is that of the height of cut for a football pitch. Often this will be cut at a height of 25-30mm producing a nice even surface. However, prime consideration should actually be given to what is the desired outcome, which is a football pitch providing a suitable playing performance for the target audience. If the audience has general playing abilities, like most lower league players, the playing characteristics are key and maintenance should be adapted accordingly. (See also comments from my previous blog).
For example: If a ball roll of 4m – 6m is considered ideal for a football pitch, this can be achieved on turf which is mown at 45mm to 50mm for a game, meaning pre-cut the grass can potentially be allowed to grow to 60mm to 75mm in length. Why then would the surface be mown at 25mm? Typically, the answer would either be that this is typical of what happens elsewhere, or people like a short turf. However, this isn’t a good enough answer and doesn’t actually consider what the required outcomes are in relation to desired playing performances.
Extra grass length means extra grass roots, which in turn mean better grip, good ground coverage, less disease incidence as the grass is less stressed, a more competitive grass as it is less stressed (although there is a balance here that needs to ensure a suitable sward density is achieved – which can be encouraged through the use of an appropriate fertiliser programme), less impact from insect grubs (particularly chafer grubs and leatherjackets because there is more root which they can eat without undue effect on turf strength; up to a limit though), plus in addition when the grass stops growing actively, say November to December time in many places the additional length of grass allows for additional games as it has more length to gradually wear down. If there is an extra 20mm (i.e. 45mm in contrast to 25mm) of growth going into this period we might find that this allows for up to an additional 20 games to the carrying capacity for a pitch (obviously being influenced by rainfall and soil type). This is not an inconsiderable benefit for the majority of pitches within the UK, but how often is this approach entertained? Very little, as there is considerable pressure from ill informed club managers and users about the range of interactions present in creating a suitable playing surface: Effective communication is therefore also a key component of good turf mana.
This is just a simple illustration of how an artificial intelligence system could be utilised to provide a better informed picture of how best to utilise limited resources in achieving optimum outcomes.
I have previously mentioned about seeming ‘unlimited budgets’, but few people would wish to waste resources, so even with lots of cash to splash the effective targeting of resources is still an important consideration.
Artificial intelligence will be a future driver within the turf care industry and may even be one of its saviours.
Chris Gray, 20th May 2018