Robby, a line-painting robot, blazes trail on UBC sports fields

Robby is an autonomous line-painter and the newest addition to the groundskeeping team at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Paul Joseph/UBC

A little robot named Robby is blazing a trail — literally — on athletic fields at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

The bright green automaton uses GPS to paint the lines on soccer fields with “laser-like precision,” and is the first of its kind in Canada, according to UBC.

“Robby and I have the closest relationship and I do refer to him like he is a co-worker,” Andre Dionne, Robby’s key operator on the UBC groundskeeping team, said in a news release on Tuesday.

“With Robby on the team, we’re able to focus more on sports field maintenance and irrigation repairs, or ongoing tasks, like mowing, weeding, and line trimming.”

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Prior to the robot’s recent arrival, it could take several people a full day to measure the lines, mark them with string, and push the manual line-painting machine across a field.

On a clear day, Robby can do it an hour, the release said, painting with a margin of error of less than half an inch. It is “seven times faster” than traditional line marking, uses less paint, and can be programmed with 45 different field types and customized with logos and numbers.

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Gary Bartley, head groundskeeper for UBC Athletics and Recreation, said he introduced Robby to the team after hearing about robot line painters abroad.

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“We have a responsibility to provide the best playing conditions for athletes, whether they are professionals, in varsity programs, or community members,” Bartley explained.

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“When one of our clients, the Vancouver Whitecaps, shared experiences of playing abroad on fields that were painted by robots, we wanted to find out more.”

Some universities in the United States already use similar robots. Bartley did some research and discovered Turf Tank, a robot field painter from Denmark.

He borrowed one from a Turf Tank distributor in the U.S., and was so impressed by its test run in Vancouver that he bought one for UBC.

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According to Dionne, the robot’s primary operator, Robby has good days and bad days, when he loses his WiFi connection, doesn’t connect to the satellite transmitter, or glitches in bad weather, resulting in wobbly or incomplete lines.

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Parts can wear out and paint can get plugged up, so he get regular checkups.

“The challenge with Robby is making sure he’s well-maintained,” Bartley said. “If you keep him ‘healthy,’ he’ll perform to the best of his capabilities – same as any other employee.”

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