Sustainability and playability are the name of the game for E-Nano, an innovative new start-up improving the quality of sports fields

February 08 2023

Sports pitches are an integral but often overlooked element of any game. Pitch maintenance is key for playability & performance, but upkeep requires vast amounts of water, energy, and fertiliser. So how can we optimise performance and protect the environment at the same time? E-Nano, an innovative new start-up based on cutting-edge technology, is tackling this issue head-on.

Sustainability and playability are the name of the game for E-Nano, an innovative new start-up improving the quality of sports fields

E-Nano, which was founded in 2020 by a group of four engineers, began with the idea of developing an automated solution for collecting data from fields—not just sports fields, but also farmlands used for growing crops. By creating a robot with sensors to scan fields and collect data, and then a web platform to analyse it, the founders hoped that more accurate decisions about fertiliser and water usage would improve yields while also reducing the impact on the environment.

In 2021, however, they realised that this technology could also be used in the sports industry. They now work with football clubs across the Premier League, Championship, and League One, as well as horse racing tracks, and their work has the potential to transform pitch maintenance for both performance and the environment alike.

The state of play for sports pitches

Improving the sustainability of pitches is a critical issue that the sports industry is yet to effectively address. There are currently around 40,000 football pitches in England alone, while there are approximately 20,000 high-quality sports pitches at any level. Maintaining all these spaces requires a vast amount of water, energy, fertilisers, and pesticides. Maintaining a typical high-quality football pitch over the course of one year requires approximately 460kg of seeds, 920kg of fertilisers, 480kg of herbicide, and 15,400,000 litres of water, which amounts to more than four Olympic swimming pools. Beyond this, there is also substantial energy usage associated with mowing and lighting equipment.

There are a growing number of rules, regulations and directives hoping to reduce the use of water, fertilisers and pesticides in Europe, but usage is still very variable across countries and across sports. While some countries, such as the Netherlands, are addressing the issue of chemical pesticides in sport directly, others have been slow to follow suit. Some football clubs, including Manchester City, have rebuilt their pitches and introduced new technology such as pitch draining systems, which can recycle up to 200,000 litres of rain. However, statistics and detailed information on precisely how much energy, water, and pesticides are used to maintain most of the UK’s elite pitches are difficult to come by.

One key problem is the need to ensure that pitches are maintained to the highest possible standard. Grounds people and those responsible for ensuring pitch quality standards often adhere to strict standards that dictate a specific way to grow and maintain turf using specific amounts of water and fertiliser. The idea is that using any less would increase the risk of a poor-quality surface.

However, by analysing the data collected through their robot technology, E-Nano have found that water and fertiliser are often substantially overused in these scenarios—sometimes by up to two or three times. ‘In the end, the soil and plants can’t even absorb all of these nutrients and chemicals and so they dissipate into the air and water, which is bad for the environment,’ says Erwann Lompech-Leneveu, one of the founders of E-Nano.

Addressing this overuse, then, not only benefits the environment but also clubs and sports organisations, who can substantially reduce water, fertiliser and energy consumption, and the associated costs, without sacrificing pitch quality. But how exactly does E-Nano’s technology achieve this?

Smart use of robotics and data analytics optimises pitches for all

The technology used by E-Nano centres around SPROUT, a robotics technology that acquires surface data from the pitch, and OSCAR, a platform that uses data analytics & AI data to review and monitor the surface data and assist in making decisions. This method means that data can be collected from the pitch entirely autonomously, with almost no human intervention in the process.

The robotics technology collects over 100 points of data per hour, including information on moisture levels and soil temperature. The analytics platform can then evaluate, in real-time, the quality and density of the turf, and visualise each variable across time, allowing users to track and monitor any changes. The technology is modular and can attach different sensors for different purposes, which allows for a comprehensive overview of the health of the pitch.

Using the robot to collect data on any given pitch on a weekly basis can help grounds teams optimise water and fertiliser usage while also keep track of soil quality over time. The amounts of water, energy, and chemicals needed can be personalised to each specific environment, which saves not only on energy but also on time and cost.

Research conducted by E-Nano in partnership with STRI estimated that using the technology in this way could reduce use of seeds by 10%, herbicides by 25%, water by 25%, and fertilisers by 70%, all without any reduction in the quality of the pitch. This translates to a saving of around 5.4 million litres of water per year—approximately one Olympic swimming pool—and, critically, a greenhouse gas emission reduction of up to five tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. In all, adjusting pitch management with E-Nano’s technology would have a positive effect on water pollution, air pollution, energy usage, and biodiversity, mapping on to several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As well as creating a sustainable pitch maintenance system that reduces environmental impact, this technology also optimises pitches for playability. High-quality and smoother surfaces can improve player performance and reduce the risk of player injury, which in turn can have a substantial impact on overall team performance. Quality pitches also reduce the number of match postponements and cancellations. Achieving and maintaining this quality while also reducing environmental impact is game-changing.

Future plans for a developing technology

The team at E-Nano hope that awareness of the importance of sustainability among sports organisations will continue to grow. While clubs and teams are increasingly developing sustainability programmes, there is still a long way to go. ‘One of our main challenges is educating clubs on environmental impact,’ says Lompech-Leneveu. Fortunately, E-Nano are seeing growing interest not only from sports organisations, but also from other players in the industry, including construction companies and suppliers who want to integrate sustainable solutions. Anyone with a field of natural or hybrid turf can benefit from the technology.

In the future, the team hope to expand the use of the technology beyond sport, returning to their original idea of using robotics and data analysis in the agricultural industry. Using their technology could supplement satellite and drone data to improve crop management, particularly for smallholders and smaller farms where the satellite data is lower quality. ‘Having more data available at a lower cost would make a huge difference in these areas,’ Lompech-Leneveu says.

Conclusion: sustainability, playability, and economic benefits offer a solution for the future

It is an exciting time to be in the sports technology field: an increasing number of start-ups and organisations are working on truly innovative solutions to long-term problems. While these solutions begin in the sports industry, they can often be expanded to achieve an even wider-scale impact, as E-Nano’s work in the agricultural field proves.

One of the key benefits of E-Nano’s technology is the harmony it achieves between sustainability and pitch playability: organisations can reduce their consumption and environmental impact without having to sacrifice pitch quality. This is an example of how technological innovation can contribute to maintaining the sports industry as we know it without threatening the health of the planet. As the climate crisis grows ever more urgent, sports stakeholders will need to take advantage of opportunities like this to ensure the long-term sustainability of every element of the game.

Read moreBethany White