I have heard of GPS technology that can be used with sprayers, but I never quite understood it. Kind of an in the one ear, out the other thing.

When I inquired about it at a trade show, or asked a sales rep, it sort of made sense, but sort of didn’t, if you know what I mean.

“Improve accuracy,” were the two words I heard most often, followed closely by the other big two, “Huge savings.” But frankly, many of these guys trying to explain how it would benefit my spray program seemed just as confused as I was about the ins and outs of GPS technology married with modern sprayers.

So, I decided it was high time I wrapped my head around it, at least a little.

I turned to Alex Little, one of my local reps here in western Washington, who works for Pacific Golf & Turf. They offer a dealer-installed GPS system for John Deere sprayers. Little is usually right on the cutting edge of everything tech and turf related.

I would like to point out that although the system Little is referring to is something they install on John Deere sprayers, other companies, including Toro, offer similar technology.

“The first thing to consider,” Little said, “is there are GPS systems with – as well as systems without – RTK (Real Time Kinematic). In a nutshell, the GPS without RTK is a window only good for about 20 minutes because of the movement of the earth and a moving receiver (the sprayer). This is overly simplified, but has an impact on the accuracy of mapping. There is no need to remap with RTK because the receiver is stationary.”

OK. So far so good. I wasn’t lost yet.

“GPS without RTK,” Little continued, “is less expensive, but basically you need to map each time. For example, spraying a fairway would require a lap around the edges of the fairway first (while spraying) and then doing the inside area.

“An RTK-based system will already have the fairway mapped, so you can just start spraying.”

There are other GPS-based technologies available as well.

“It comes down to accuracy versus cost,” Little said.

He also pointed out that other technologies, such as auto-steering and operator-less already exist and are in use.

Toro Multi Pro 5800 with the new GeoLink system

Other benefits I could see to GPS-based spraying include record-keeping, spraying at all hours (no foamer needed), repeatability and eliminating skipped areas. And with the RTK based system another benefit would be that you could spray, say, half a fairway one day and the rest the next day. This could come in handy if time is a crunch with golfers approaching, or the wind picking up, or some other emergency.

“There are also ag technologies coming soon that can be implemented for precision,” Little said. “Maybe a portion of the fairway, green or tee does not require as much input as other areas? Plant health sensors are being developed and could be over-layed on the site map, and the spray area could correct for different areas or ‘zones’.”

In fact, if one takes a hard look at the agriculture industry you will see they are utilizing this technology at a much higher scale. The term used there is precision agriculture, and GPS sprayers are simply a part of that overall plan. Farmers are realizing that through precise applications of fertilizers and pesticides, they are not only reducing expenses but getting a higher yield. And, as a bonus, managing a more environmentally friendly farm.

Screenshots from a Toro video highlighting the features of the Multi Pro 5800 with the GeoLink.

Like many industries, golf courses are feeling the pinch of the dollar these days. Budgets are getting squeezed a little more from one year to the next. So, on the surface, selling the concept of a GPS-based spraying system to the powers that be is not going to be easy for most golf course superintendents. They cost more. This is undoubtedly why the number of courses utilizing this technology is still very low (although it is increasing). Some drone services can provide mapping and other data points to help with both decision-making and applications as well.

Cost of these emerging technologies can be a concern, and the industry will need to consider these innovations as long-term investments when trying to get buy-in from the executive team. An initial cost can eventually be offset by savings down the road. This is where those two key words I kept hearing come in: “Improve accuracy.”

Think of all the overlapping you do each time you spray. Or all the applying you do to areas that may require a lower rate than the rate at which you are applying. And then multiply that by all the applications you make in a year. In two years. In 10 years.

In fact, Toro states that their GeoLink system can save golf courses up to 14 percent on chemical costs per year. With savings like those, it wouldn’t take long at all to pay for the sprayer upgrade.

And of course it’s not just the cost savings. It’s the peace of mind. Knowing you are applying the absolute minimum to areas you only need to be applying to. No waste. No excess.

GPS-enhanced sprayers are still pricey, and many may think (like I did) that they are simply not an option for their operation. But we are getting to the point now where many of us may have to take a second look at this bit of technology that, in the past, seemed excessive and out of our reach.