Drones: A sports turf evolution

Kerry Haywoodin Industry

As demand for precision, efficiency and sustainability continues to rise, as does the need for innovative solutions, drones are changing the turfcare industry landscape; particularly in greenkeeping and golf course maintenance.

In the dynamic world of sports turf management, staying ahead of the game is essential.


Aerial surveys and mapping

With the development of drones, precision aerial surveys have never been more accessible. Equipped with high-definition cameras and sensors, drones can capture high-resolution imagery of your entire course. Drones allow you to measure area and distance, as well as volume and elevation. The images can assess turf health as well as identify problem areas and plan maintenance activities with great precision.

Maps offer the ability to overlay irrigation systems and drainage plans. It also allows architect ideas and paper maps to be digitised and added.

Course mapping and measurement

Drones have transformed course mapping. They can take measurements which offer unmatched efficiency and accuracy. Drones can quickly and accurately map every inch of a course. They generate detailed elevation models, contour maps and 3D renderings that offer a comprehensive view of your terrain.

Whether you are planning course renovations, optimising irrigation systems or conducting drainage assessments; drone maps can streamline the process. It saves time and resources while delivering accurate results.

Intelligent irrigation management

By using aerial imagery and data collected, golf course managers can optimise irrigation systems. Water is a precious resource on a golf course. It ensures optimal water distribution while minimising waste. Drones can detect areas of overwatering or underwatering. They can identify irrigation system inefficiencies and provide real-time insights that enable adjustments to watering schedules. This leads to healthier turf, reduced water consumption and lower operational costs.

Watershed maps are a fantastic way to start conserving water on your course; they show the exact route water takes as it runs across the course. This provides invaluable information when you are considering a pond or reservoir for course irrigation.

Pest and disease detection

Protecting turf health is paramount in golf course maintenance. Early detection is key to preventing pest infestations and disease outbreaks.

Drones equipped with multispectral sensors offer a powerful tool for pest and disease detection. By scanning the course from above, drones can identify signs of stress and discolouration. Whether it is detecting grass species, monitoring fungal infections or identifying areas of nutrient deficiency, drones provide golf course managers with the actionable intelligence they need to implement targeted treatment strategies and preserve turf quality.

Tree count

Once the aerial imagery is captured, software and algorithms are used to analyse the data and identify individual trees. These software tools can automatically detect and delineate tree crowns, enabling precise tree counting.

Drone tree counts offer a fast, efficient and cost-effective method for gathering valuable data about tree populations. This enables informed decision-making for tree management and conservation.

Drone conclusion!

Frazer Harrison, Director at Vantage Imagery Ltd summarised his passion saying: “Drones are revolutionising greenkeeping and golf course maintenance, offering a wealth of benefits and opportunities. From precision aerial surveys and course mapping to intelligent irrigation management and pest detection, drones provide invaluable insights and capabilities that enable proactive decision-making and optimise turf health and course conditions.”

Elevate your golf course management to new heights today, email: frazer@vantageimageryltd.com


Mike Laheen from The Leicestershire Golf Club has adopted drones into his course management and enhanced the way he sees his course. He gives us his account of the technology...

Vantage Imagery has been on site to do high-resolution 2D and 3D aerial imagery. We had a Digital Surface Model of the course topography and will be doing a tree count which will form the basis of a full-site tree survey - as well as overlaid scans of our drainage maps and plans for the irrigation system.  

Our current site plans are old and not drawn to scale! When it’s drier, we will do another flight of the course, which will make it easier to see where the land drains are. This will help me immensely to determine the cause of drainage issues which have forced closures throughout the winter.

How have the drone images helped course management?

There are several areas in which I have used the imagery and mapping. One is to measure the area of course features accurately and quickly, which has allowed me to better gauge the quantities of material for bunker renovation such as the EcoTec liner and bunker sand. With the rising cost of materials, exact estimation is becoming critical.

I’m particularly excited about the ability to draw accurate boundaries within the cloud-based application. I can then export for use with our John Deere HD200 sprayer which has the Starfire RTK system fitted. This means I can draw an area on a map with centimetre accuracy and then send an operator out to spray the exact spot.

Have there been any challenges throughout the process?

On our site, we are close to Leicester Airport. This meant that Vantage Imagery had to let them know and agree on a flight window in advance. It also means that there are restrictions on using a drone of our own. I believe we would need to have an operator with a commercial drone pilot’s licence.

As with all things, there’s a learning curve and I’m only just finding my feet in week one! In the past, I’ve used QGIS, Google Earth and John Deere Operations Centre. The cloud-based software from Vantage Imagery is different from those other applications, but very simple.

Do you see long-term potential in using drone technology in turfcare?

Absolutely! Having plans and maps available at your fingertips, rather than old paper maps rolled up in tubes, makes life easier. Being able to easily record data on a map makes it more likely that changes to irrigation, drainage or course layout will be documented - which is a huge problem with paper maps.

With the increasing availability of autonomous machinery like robot mowers, drone mapping will become vital. The technology already exists to assess turf health to create spray programmes. Our HD200 sprayer is already capable of doing this, so we could theoretically be doing this today. Unfortunately,

I don’t have the budget currently to get the drones in every month to fly the course and create the prescriptions!

How much has it cost your club for the drone images and work?

The cost of aerial surveying has been reduced dramatically. When I first got interested about ten years ago, it would have cost over £5000 to have a flight done. Our first flight, with 2D and 3D maps, plus two paper plans overlaid, cost less than £2000.


Steve Hardy from Kenilworth Golf Club told us how he has utilised drone surveys for his communication methods.

“Eventually we would like to make the data accessible to all members so that they can see the developments before we undertake the work. The drone footage will enhance the way we can communicate with members. However, that’s not to say we won’t still do more conventional methods of communication, such as newsletters and member forums, for those not using social media.”

“When I first started in the industry a monthly newsletter was more than acceptable and you could communicate everything you were doing at that time. We now have the technology to actually show what we are going to do; the surveying data takes it one step further and gives another level of detail to members.”

“We recently had a members spring forum to discuss course improvements and I was able to simply click a button to show each layer of our architects masterplan whilst presenting. For instance, we’re aiming to do 3600 metres of drainage this year. 1000 of that is on the 1st fairway and 500 is on the 14th approach. Before drone technology, I would be going out with a theodolite, a laser and a measuring wheel, and it would take days to gather that information.”

Steve mentions time saving as one of the key bonuses to using drones: “We can spend hours on end working on communication with members. Now, drone footage does all the hard work in gathering data for us to present.”

He summarised: “I would recommend drones - even if it’s only for communication purposes. It has cost the club under £3000 for the Vantage Imagery surveys. These will be used for years and getting them refreshed is a minimal cost. No one wants to use the old paper plans anymore and it has saved me a lot of time and work for sure.”


It will come as no surprise that the United States are progressive in the use of drone technology.

We spoke to Chris Williams, Sales Manager - Southeast US/Helena Agri-Enterprises, LLC about investment in drone technology with their team of sports turf agronomists.

Chris commented: “From a turf management perspective, Helena currently offers two views in our drone capabilities.”

“First, we utilise RGB (Red, Green, Blue) for a real world view of current color and conditions. RGB is used to create imagery as we would see pictures and used for a variety of purposes (site maps, promotional footage, shade patterns, acre/square footage count).  Secondly, we utilise thermal cameras to identify areas of concern, where temperature change can be caused by many factors, the thermal image gives us a road map to the locations needing attention. Thermal imagery can be utilized to identify drainage/irrigation lines, drainage/irrigation issues, high traffic areas and such.” 

“We currently have about ten drones being utilised around the United States within the golf/sports turf markets. We have worked with a few high profile customers in gathering both RGB (promotional photos and videos) and thermal image maps to identify areas of the field/pitch holding heat for a myriad of reasons (moisture or lack of moisture, as well as high traffic areas).”

“Customers are slowly growing to understand the data and utilising the imagery to improve the maintenance practices of their respective facilities.”

Wes Henshaw, Golf Sales Manager, 
K.A.R UK Ltd

Real-time aerial imagery captured by drones equipped with high-resolution cameras has been implemented into irrigation control systems. Wes Henshaw explains. 

These detailed aerial images provide a complete picture of a golf course or sports pitch, allowing for precise irrigation system management.

The ease and speed with which these images are produced ensure managers have the most current information readily available. This eliminates the need for time-consuming traditional methods and allows for prompt action.

Once uploaded to the Hunter Pilot Control System’s map feature, the high-definition image becomes an invaluable resource. Managers can easily visualise the entire playing surface. When specific areas require adjustments to sprinkler runtimes or manual watering, they can readily access the map on their mobile phone and address the issues promptly. This targeted approach optimises water usage, ensures even distribution across the course, and prevents dry spots or overwatering.

This data offers additional benefits beyond irrigation control. It can be used for topography surveys, particularly when installing a new system or assessing an existing one. By analysing the course’s topography, managers and designers can identify areas where water collects or runs off. This information facilitates the implementation of solutions to capture and utilise this water, promoting a more sustainable water management approach.


Leon Dalton from Burton on Trent Golf Club told us how drones have helped map, develop and improve the course.

Leon suggests this could be something used by all courses in the future: “We have had several drone flyovers. It isn’t a case of having one fly over and then that’s the job done. We have used the images for irrigation, bunker projects and drainage. It helps to build up the layers of the course plan and have the data at my fingertips.”

He explained how the images helped with the drainage: “Whilst the turf was burnt off, the footage would highlight any visible drain lines; it turned out there were quite a number of them. This winter, we have been able to use the information to pinpoint problems and repair and rectify them. Without that data, we would have never seen it.”

The drone images have also helped with bunker construction: “I can take the old images of the course and edit where I want a bunker to be on a specific hole. I can see exactly where the bunker will be, along with its depth and the size.”

Drone imagery enhances tee development, he said; “If I’m constructing a new tee, I can mark out the boundaries, work out the area and the cubic metres. Before I go onto the course, I’ve been able to map out all the details on the images, as well as figure out a rough cost.”

He looks to the future: “Keeping these records allows us to mark down what has been done. I use the Vantage Imagery system and Managing Director Frazer undertakes all the mappings so that I can use the images to mark the findings. I can then also use the tools on the system to plan for future projects.”