Robots on the gridiron: Bots are painting lines on sports fields

Despite hype cycle of self-driving cars and backflipping humanoids, this is how robots will conquer the real world.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Any Little League parent will be familiar with the chore of chalking lines on a baseball diamond before a weekend game. Now there's robot for that, and it's an excellent example of how automation is sneaking into the real world without much fanfare.

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Founded in 2015 by Anders Ulrik Sørensen and Andreas Ydesen as a high school project, Intelligent Marking is the Danish startup behind what the company says is the world's first autonomous line marking robot. The primary application is sports fields.

As those Little League parents know, it takes hours to manually chalk fields, a repeatable task that's essential to field sports like football, baseball, and soccer. Human teams currently use surveying techniques to create grids and straight lines prior to chalking, but a robot can use GPS to mark lines with higher precision than humans every time. The robot is more efficient, too, saving as much as $100 in paint per football field while also cutting down on labor costs.

It's an unusual use case, but also an example of a long-ignored market ripe for innovation. Intelligent Marking estimates the sector could be worth billions, and the founders have raised millions of dollars to try and crack it open globally. Investor Johnny Laursen, CEO at Benjamin Capital, recently led a multi-million dollar round, which is helping fund an expansion of the company into the U.S. via a new subsidiary. 

The North American youth sports market is massive. According to Sports Illustrated, kids sports leagues have created a $15B industry in the U.S. 

 "We are now positioned to rapidly grow and support our robotic sports turf line marking solution and dominate the U.S. marketplace in 2019 and beyond with this new strategically placed sales force and product support team," said Jason Aldridge, President, Intelligent Marking USA, Inc. "We're excited about having an existing customer base, which has already proven their labor improvements and cost savings, in combination with a newly formed sales structure and support staff, all within no more than a 4-hour drive from any prospect in the nation."

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This is where the automation revolution is really happening: utilitarian applications that have a surprising efficiency upside. 

The robot isn't cheap; MSRP is $49,999. But the ROI case is strong. For customers with multiple fields to mark, the company forecasts an average return on investment in 12 to 18 months. As is becoming standard across robotics, there's also a Robotics-as-a-Service model.

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