In 2005, Bucks County native Walt Norley was living in sunny north Palm Beach, Florida, running a successful company and making morning trips to the gym.
He’d often spot what he says is a typical suburban sight on the way: sprinklers spritzing water onto wet grass as rain poured from the sky; unintended waste caused by the use of timed irrigation systems. It struck him an antiquated practice.
Norley employed Soil Air Technologies, which developed a sub-surface aeration system used to vacuum water levels of golf courses and sports fields, and he floated the idea of measuring soil moisture to control pumps for irrigation instead of relying on timers.
His crew put together a sensor technology that measures everything that should be in soil salinity, moisture levels and temperature to grow a healthy and beautiful landscape. In the process, the sensors save, on average, 10 percent of an organization’s water use.
Today, the patented technology is known as UgMO, a proprietary wireless intelligence system that broadcasts soil information to irrigation systems, or, for the hardcore lawn geeks (and some extra green), a web-based administration system. And by geeks, we mean highly paid landscape professionals with $2 million grooming budgets.
A sensor node, which houses an antenna, battery and radio is buried six to eight inches underground. Sensor data is transferred to an above ground router system based on a wireless mesh network. The information then controls a water flow interrupter and can be broadcast back to UgMO’s snazzy web-based metrics resource. (See graphic above)
It fit right in with the company’s client-base of commercial athletic fields. “It was very clear that the golf world and sports turf world were lacking information,” Norley says.
The company has been through a handful of name changes. From Soil Air to Advanced Aeration Systems, both based in Florida. Most recently it settled on Advanced Sensor Technology, the name it kept during its move to King of Prussia in 2007, as reported by the Philadelphia Business Journal.
Red State, Blue State, Green State
Norley is well-informed on drought issues when talking about UgMO. He has to be. It’s a significant selling point.
A look at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s U.S. Drought Monitor shows large swaths of the country in intense drought situations.
In Texas, where the data shows class C4 “exceptional drought” conditions, the lack of water has cost the Lonestar state $3.6 billion in crop and livestock losses, and is on its way to set drought records this year, the Associated Press reported yesterday. California has also been bathed in the alarming red C4 drought conditions often throughout 2009, along with portions of the Southeast.
Fortunately, the Northeast region isn’t experiencing the same drought intensity. But it has seen drought affect the local landscape business and Norley says that water conservation is happening in the region. One of the early adopters of AST’s technology, Montgomery County’s Merion Golf Club has sworn by the technology. UgMO has saved the club more than 100 million gallons of water, roughly $130,000 per year, according to the New York Times.
UgMO is split into two product offerings. UgMO Knows, an intelligence system that provides the technology along with web-based data analysis for larger operations like Merion, costs $250 per sensor and the subscription per month is roughly $8 per sensor.
The second product, UgMO Saves, is more for users who just want to stop their irrigation based on the data the system detects. It includes four sensors with a water interrupter for under $500 dollars.
“No property is alike. The grass is different, the topography is different. The end result, if you [use UgMO] is: Ten times out of ten, everybody saves water,” Norley says.
“Nine times out of ten, we’re creating a soil that’s healthier, therefore everything above it is healthier.”
The Green Marketplace
Golf has contributed much to AST’s success. After all, hundreds of acres make up any given course. Advanced secured a deal with Gary Player Design, a preeminent golf course design company. The firm has developed more than 300 layouts and is currently involved with 50 developments around the globe.
But golf courses aren’t the end-all.
Norley says his sales team is working with professional athletic organizations, trying to get UgMO on baseball and football fields. There’s benefits there, too, aside from environmental and cost-savings ones. Better kept playing surfaces creates less injuries, Norley says, which might keep that pro’s “three-million dollar knee” in better shape.
Norley says that the company’s market is anything irrigated.
Commercial turf, municipal athletic fields, parks and recreation. Corporate business parks look to the technology to save on money on lawn maintenance and Advanced is finishing up pilot programs in Florida and Southern California to tailor the tech specifically to residential consumers, as well. Norley hopes that those customers can purchase the system as soon as the fourth quarter of this year.
Norley says that more and more, people want to be stewards of the environment. But he says the barriers of entry are high because going green does not often mean saving money. Not in UgMO’s case.
“One thing I’ve learned about all of this is that cost matters. If an environmental technology doesn’t have a cost-reduction component, the adoption rate is very slow.”
Norley says he’s worked with environmental companies throughout his career by chance. And of course, the work Norley’s done with soil and water on athletic fields is an, ahem, natural fit for the cause.
“I’ve been in and out of the environmental world for over 25 years. Clearly this is the focus of our company today,” he says.
Knowledge is power!
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