Community sports work to trial turf tech innovations

Brisbane Sustainability Agency is trialling innovative technologies with new partners to help sporting clubs use the Internet of Things (IoT) devices to become more resource efficient. 

Brisbane Sustainability Agency is trialling innovative technologies with new partners to help sporting clubs use the Internet of Things (IoT) devices to become more resource efficient. 

The challenge facing community clubs

Community sports clubs are an essential part of our community and identity. They are typically run by volunteers who take time out of their own lives to give back to their chosen sport and community. For these volunteers, managing club revenue and expenses is an ongoing challenge. One of the most significant ongoing costs for clubs is utility bills, specifically electricity and water.

Another critical challenge for clubs is the loss of acquired knowledge of club operations due to volunteer attrition. This knowledge loss issue is particularly problematic for sports field management. Volunteers with varied levels of understanding or training are responsible for decisions on the watering and general upkeep of playing surfaces.

Brisbane Sustainability Agency, a wholly owned subsidiary company of Brisbane City Council, has actively pursued opportunities to support a cleaner, greener and more sustainable Brisbane. It has been working with sporting clubs across Brisbane through the Resilient Clubs Support Program.

The Resilient Clubs Support Program delivers a program of works and coaching to improve community sporting club sustainability practices and infrastructure. This has included the installation of the following:

  • solar power systems;
  • water-saving shower heads, taps, and sprinkler heads;
  • energy efficient light globes;
  • timed irrigation systems;
  • energy use monitors; and
  • water use monitors.

Tackling sports fields

The existing Resilient Clubs Support Program does not currently provide clubs with support in managing the appropriate volume and frequency of watering for sports fields. However, it was considered the next step in improving club sustainability. Brisbane Sustainability Agency began investigating the opportunity to combine the data from the Program’s existing onsite separate irrigation, water and energy monitors with data from new Internet of Things (IoT) devices, including weather stations and sports field-based soil moisture sensors.

This integration approach was investigated to establish a system for monitoring energy and water use data associated with sports field management. The goal was to reduce the volunteer workload. It would simplify field management decision-making and build sporting clubs’ capacity to operate more sustainably and cost-effectively.

In 2022, Brisbane Sustainability Agency received funding from the Queensland Government Department of Tourism, Innovation and Sport to develop a system prototype.

Prototyping was conducted over six months. It involved designing, developing, testing and evaluating the new system with six sporting clubs. The clubs were drawn from different sporting codes, including AFL, rugby league, football and cricket. A small-scale prototyping approach was adopted. This was due to the unknowns of integrating the existing irrigation, water, and energy monitoring technologies with new IoT devices.

IoT devices are non-standard computing devices that connect wirelessly to a network and can transmit data. The IoT devices used in this project included water flow sensors, soil moisture sensors and site-based weather stations that measure temperature, rainfall, wind, and humidity.

The process

The project team kicked off the prototype development by conducting irrigation system audits and soil testing at each participating club’s sports field to gather a clear understanding of several aspects. They included the following:

  • soil history;
  • condition of the irrigation system;
  • state of the irrigation controller and other existing devices;
  • soil root depth; and
  • soil type.

The irrigation audits and soil testing were used to determine the installation depth and location of IoT soil moisture sensors and the ideal soil moisture content for each field according to soil type. Sensors were installed at approximately 80 per cent of the root depth and placed in field areas with different soil compositions, compaction, drainage, and field usage.

Additional IoT devices, weather stations and irrigation flow sensors were installed at the clubs to correlate field moisture conditions against weather and field watering regimes.

The IoT devices’ data were combined into a simple, easy-to-interpret online dashboard application. It provided field-specific insights into:

  • current soil moisture levels;
  • recent irrigation activities;
  • recommended irrigation requirements;
  • turf water consumption;
  • current weather conditions;
  • forecast weather conditions; and
  • energy consumption.

The importance of maintaining turf for community sports fields

Turf is a resilient crop that can survive with limited soil moisture for long periods, essentially by going dormant instead of permanently wilting. While this attribute is valuable during drought, sports field turf is best kept above wilting point as excessively dry soil contributes to poor turf health, posing a higher risk of injuries to players due to the hard surface.

The prototype trial phase of the project commenced in January 2023.

Representatives from each club attended an onboarding workshop where they were upskilled in soil and irrigation management and inducted into their club-based user insight dashboard.

The system of site-based IoT devices fed the club-specific online dashboard data. The dashboards are helping each club keep their soil at optimal moisture levels based on each club’s budget, water availability, field health, and playing requirements.

Brisbane Sustainability Agency will monitor and assess the trial over twelve months. Subject to the findings at the end of the trial, there may be the opportunity to extend the IoT and dashboard field management outcome to support other clubs within Brisbane for greater water and cost savings.

Current project learnings

Sports fields across a city can have highly variable soil types and compositions between fields and within a single field. New technologies require training, which can be challenging in volunteer-led clubs with high turnover. End-user interfaces need to be very simple, and the input data needed to generate relevant insights should be automated (via IoT).

Soil moisture sensors provide precise, localised data. While this is extremely useful in precision agriculture, openly available evapotranspiration data may be sufficient to estimate irrigation water requirements in sports clubs. This trial will monitor how soil moisture sensor data is used over twelve months to assess whether this level of precision is valuable for the participating clubs.

This project was partly funded by the Queensland Government Department of Tourism, Innovation and Sport as part of its ActiveKIT grant program. The consultant team working with Brisbane Sustainability Agency on this project included Yurika (part of Energy Queensland) and Andres Jaramillo Consulting.

Further information on the outcome of the trial will be released after the trial is completed and assessed in mid-2024. That will be available via the Brisbane Sustainability Agency website at sustainablebrisbane.com.au/programs/sports-technology-hub

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