Drones and Golf Courses

Kevin Leeper, Heritage PPG's Technical Support Specialist, wrote an article for the Minnesota Golf Course Superintendent Association April Edition of the Hole Notes Magazine. To visit their magazine, please click here. Read the below article he wrote regarding Drones and Golf Courses.

Drones can be a wonderful addition to a golf course. The primary benefit is drones allow a user to obtain a high-level overview of the turf health for targeted and efficient deployment of manpower and resources. For superintendents, drone images can bring a wealth of knowledge about their property. Some forward or creative thinking may be needed, as many of the benefits superintendents could decipher from drones have not been researched at this point.

What we do know, is that a new perspective from 400 feet in the air can display patterns in the turf which may not be recognized from 5’10”. Some of these patterns might be recognized as poor irrigation system design or broken heads. Other images might show misapplied nutrients or preventative pesticide treatments. Many noticeable patterns may include turf stress caused by environmental factors including weather events, or something as simple as excessive shade from a tree.

10 years ago, taking these images or videos would require an airplane with a camera or sensor and a private pilots license. I have a private pilot’s license from the University of North Dakota, as well as a Drone license and 5 years of experience flying drones at golf courses across the U.S. for Winfield United. I also have some great news for those interested in drone technology, 10 years is a long time ago. Drone technology has advanced to a point where planes, pilot licenses, and years of experience are no longer necessary for beginner pilots.

In other words, technical ability is no longer a reason not to use a drone. Some software platforms will fly the drone for the user in a pre-determined pattern with the intended purpose of driving proactive treatments or remedial actions. Some platforms incorporate zone management areas based on various measurements taken during the flight to assist in decision making. 

It is safe to say in 2021, that drones are useful and easy to use. Why haven’t more superintendents been using them?

The likeliest of reasons is that people are unaware how seeing a property/problem area from a different perspective can change short- or long-term decision-making process.

Another reason might be the expectation of high cost. Most drones that a golf course might want for images and videos will run less than $1,500 and have high quality images and decent battery life (flight time). Drones will no doubt get more expensive if the desired data includes NDVI or Thermal images.

The last, and most important, consideration in drone usage is understanding that there may be airspace restrictions over the property intended to be flown. This is a big issue for courses in densely populated areas because densely populated areas have airports… and with airports come airplanes… and with airplanes come airspace restrictions.

As a general rule, an airport will have airspace restrictions extending 2 miles from the airport on the ground. After two miles, the airspace restrictions for drones will lift to anywhere from 50’ - 400’ AGL, (400’ is the maximum height above ground level drones can fly). Should a property fall within the 2-mile radius, a waiver may be obtained for flight at various elevations deemed safe to fly by the local airport.

Airspace restrictions are not limited to airports. Buildings like stadiums, schools, hospitals, and National Parks may have temporary or permanent flight restrictions. So, what is needed to be a responsible drone pilot? The FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, has developed rules, called “Part 107 Guidelines” for drones less than 55 lbs. to be flown for work or business purposes. (Use this link to find all the information to fly a drone for business purposes). A few key points for those who wish to jump into flying a drone for business use:

Recreational drone flight, defined as, “for fun or personal enjoyment.” follows similar guidelines that commercial drone flight will require. If a user is in doubt about whether a Part 107 license is needed for a flight, it probably is. Safety is the most important thing when it comes to anything Aircraft related. Many of these safety guidelines for drone use are common sense, such as keep your drone within your “Visual Line of Sight”, do not fly at night, do not interfere with manned aircraft or emergency response activities, and do not operate the drone in a reckless manner. These and other guidelines for Recreational flight can be found at the FAA website.

Always remember, when flying for business or recreational use, fly your drone safely and within FAA guidelines. Most importantly, know and understand where it is and is not safe to fly – Get an app for your phone like, “AirMap” to better understand airspace restrictions.

Drones and the images or data which can be produced by them are truly remarkable, considering the low cost of the technology and ease of use offered to novice flyers. Like any new technology, drones will require time for adoption. Many golf courses have already benefited from the use drones and have incorporated the data into their spray programs, from individual wetting agent or fertilizer applications to variable rate fungicide programs. In time, with research, education, and increased usage, the benefits will be better understood and Drones will become just another tool in the back of the Superintendents cart.


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