MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Man versus machine. Our tug-of-war with technology isn’t going away anytime soon.
In Mecklenburg County, a robot is taking a job some people dread, but some in the field of marking athletic fields are standing their ground against competition from robots.
At Christ the King High School, in Huntersville, there are signs the human element game is fading. A sophisticated bucket of bolts roams like a rover exploring a remote planet.
“A Turf Tank machine is what it’s called. It’s an automatic field painting robot,” explains Alex Habel.
Carolina Miners Lacrosse leases Turf Tank and unleashes it, lining up jobs at local schools.
Brothers Alex and Joey Habel say it’s a mostly self-sufficient wonder. They set it and almost forget it.
“We can just relax and check it every 30 minutes or so,“ Joey tells Queen City News.
They use a tablet to pick the type of field. With GPS technology, the base station tells the unit where to go. The robot can finish a football field in a couple of hours, without the need for a large crew.
Turf Tank was invented in Denmark. According to the company’s website, one of the first prototypes was built out of Lego, a famed Danish invention.
“It certainly saves us a lot of time, a lot of manpower hours too,” said Alex.
But the futuristic trend makes purists shrug.
“How boring is that? Pretty boring to me,” says David Webster, a field marking general for 23 years and owner of Webster’s Pool and Field (yes, he dabbles in pools too).
When you read between the lines, it’s only human to take pride in a job well done. At South Meck High, there wouldn’t be a gridiron without Webster and other unsung heroes of football season.
“It’s just a sense of, ‘I know what I’m doing, I’m a professional,’” Webster says, just before sending his team to tackle painting the red South Meck Sabre paw at midfield.
“Be real careful going out there,” he instructs his men, making sure they don’t spill red paint on the rest of the grass.
Meanwhile, the Turf Tank rolls mostly uninterrupted.
“Actually, it might be out of paint, now, ha-ha,” Joey said during our interview.
They just refill the paint tank and pop it back into the robot, which picks up right where it left off.
“Run and grab a snack or something,” said Joey.
Man and robot mark their territory at a different pace. Because of the rise of these machines, some of Webster’s longtime clients informed him they no longer needed his services.
“’I’ve got a robot now, appreciate what you’ve done all these years but…’ And I’ll say, ‘Fine, go for it,’” said Webster.
After the Turf Tank puts down the lines at places like Christ the King, the Habels hire Coach Webster to do the numbers and logos.
“I think that there definitely is a way to work together,” said Alex. “I mean, this thing isn’t great at painting large areas, it takes a long time.”
Even so, for many reasons, Webster sees the writing on the wall. He plans to walk away after this season.
“I don’t necessarily want to retire, but you know it’s time. My health is not like it used to be,” he explained.
Some can’t get their paws on one of those robots, but Webster says at this point in his career, he’s not one of them.
Coach Webster leaves a huge void because no one is wired quite like him. But it’s hard to deny that the upstart robots are outstanding in their field.
“You know I guess that’s technology and the world we live in right now,” Webster says.