SPORTS FEATURE COLUMN: Meet the Turf Tank... Dublin's new paint robot revolutionizing field-prep for athletics staff
The Courier Herald, "Slices of Sports" – September 9, 2021
The future has officially arrived at the Dublin High School athletic complex.
Those who thought stadium jumbotrons, live video playback systems and wireless headsets were as modern as high school sports would ever get have another thing coming this fall, as the Dub-side debuts for the 2020 football season such new-age innovations as a fully digital ticketing system and – of particular novelty – a robot that now paints the field at the Shamrock Bowl.
If you were at Dublin's intra-squad football scrimmage Friday night, you might have noticed the lightly-decorated gridiron looked a touch different than it has in the past.
The pristinely straight horizontal and vertical lines marking off the field itself didn't give it away, but if you looked closely at the more new-age looking block numerals painted at every 10 yard increment in a different-looking style than the classic serif font of the stencils previously used to spray those numbers onto the field, you could tell the field had been painted not by man, but machine.
And that's set to become the new normal for just about every field of practice or play on the DHS campus starting this year. The school has joined a growing number that are taking advantage of a revolutionary field-painting technology pioneered by a company called Turf Tank.
The system uses an autonomous GPS-guided robot to mark lines and any conceivable decorations onto outdoor athletic fields, with accuracy down to a quarter inch. And it's not just for football. The machine can also paint soccer field dimensions, draw foul lines and chalk off batters' boxes. The creative possibilities, which include midfield logos and endzone lettering, are limited only by the colors and volume of paint you want to use.
The company, now based in Acworth, was founded in 2016 by a former high school football coach in Lebanon, Tennessee who had left the profession to take a job in sales with Hudl, another company that over the past decade has digitized the once-manual and arduous process of film study and breakdown with a cloud-based system that's now the industry standard among coaches.
He and a robotics engineer out of the University of Michigan put their heads together with a duo out of Europe who had reached the early stages of launching a prototype of the product, and formed the joint venture, which now sells or leases the systems to high schools, college athletic associations, pro sports franchises and recreation departments across the country.
The robot itself, which runs between $35,000 and 45,000 in price, is available to buy up front, but like most things these days, is commonly leased to customers in a subscription plan with various tiers that bundle warranty packages, software customization features, added accessories and an annual paint supply.
But many who have used it say the time, labor and overall headache of field painting that it saves them is well worth the investment.
Jeff Davis head football coach Lance Helton – a former Dublin assistant coach whose school has used a Turf Tank robot since 2017 – was among the company's first midstate clients, and remains one of its biggest promoters. As a matter of fact, he loaded up the robot and brought it to Dublin to help the Irish staff paint the first layer of lines at the bowl as a demo prior to the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
The technology turns what was, in the past, grunt work to an afterthought for coaching staffs at smaller schools. In the past, striping a football field would be a Thursday-night task requiring half if not an entire crew of coaches or volunteers.
Now the once manual process of measuring off yard lines and stenciling hash marks and numbers is accomplished with the touch of a button, affording coaches more time to touch up their gameplan or actually head to the house a bit early. The only effort required beyond one-time programming is keeping the reservoir filled up with paint.
"It's a lifesaver for me, just from a quality of life standpoint for our coaches," Helton told me in an interview two years ago. "For years and years, we as coaches have prided ourselves on the way our field looks, and it takes a lot of man hours from a lot of people. This has been able to let my guys work on football more and be home with their families."
Local baseball fans who saw the Jeff Davis robot working in the batters' circle between games of the 2018 playoff baseball doubleheader between the Jackets and East Laurens in Hazlehurst were more than a bit amused at watching the machine, which reminds of a bigger version of the robotic vacuum cleaners advertised on TV and at the mall.
But it quickly became much more than a toy, turning into a "valuable asset" by weekly servicing four different football fields on its campus, and three of other sports in the spring. Turf Tank promotional materials say the robot is capable of painting the average gridiron in around three hours, and also economizes paint by cutting down on the volume used by almost half.
"It was worth the investment," Helton said.
He won't have to loan his out to Dublin any longer.
The Irish joined the Turf Tank club this summer and have quickly put their robot, painted in the standard bright green, to good use.
One afternoon last Tuesday, with a softball game, volleyball meet and football practice going on nearby, Dublin assistant baseball coach Brian Brown and a company representative could be seen on the deserted field at the Shamrock Bowl taking the machine for about a hundred-yard test drive from the corner of the endzone to midfield and back.
Brown, unrivaled in his dedication to field maintenance, helps keep up the turf on several sectors of Dublin's athletic complex, and will be among several handlers of the robot throughout the sports year.
This particular afternoon, the two were connected with Turf Tank support via FaceTime on a phone he held in one hand, with the tablet that serves as the bot's remote control console in the other, troubleshooting a few kinks in the programming before taking it out to line the field for Dublin's Thursday scrimmage later in the week.
Upon seeing the finished product, I've gotta say it did a pretty darn good job.
The field, for the dry-run, didn't feature the level of detail it would be afforded on Friday night, without individual hash marks and letters and numbers that were simply outlined rather than filled in and bordered with a second color. But the paint job still appeared spotless from the lines to the block IRISH letters in the endzone. The only blemish, come to find out, was a small hitch on a line beneath the goalpost where the wheels had run over a raised sprinkler head.
They'll make sure that hiccup is smoothed over by later this month, when Wheeler County is scheduled to visit the bowl Sept. 25 for Dublin's region 4-A opener.
I'm sure when we all daydreamed about what the future would be like, we envisioned robots doing plenty of other things for us than painting football fields. It'd be nice if the brainiacs who came up with this idea would get to work on solving all the cooking, cleaning and laundry we all still have to do by hand.
But make no mistake, the future is coming faster than we realize in a world where, not too long from now, everything at high school stadiums from concessions to scorekeeping could be automated.
I would say the intuition involved in gameplanning and play-calling will keep the jobs of our local coaches safe from the ever-growing takeover of artificial intelligence, but you really never know when the printed play scripts and gameplans still used on the sidelines Friday nights might ultimately be upgraded to electronic tablets with an "Ask Madden" button.
You never quite know what will be next to be ushered into the modern age.