Exciting ICT prospects for Aussie ag

Tim Wark

AUSTRALIAN agriculture is on the cusp of new information and communication technologies (ICT) being introduced, according to a CSIRO research scientist.

Tim Wark, speaking at an ICT forum for agriculture presented by The Centre for Study of Rural Australia at Marcus Oldham College, Geelong last month, nominated the limitations with storing power as one of the main barriers to date of the uptake of technology outside the urban environments in agriculture.

“However we are starting to see a new wave of types of batteries and storage that will mean in the future we will be able to store infinitely more energy than we’re able to do to date. So we don’t need to be changing batteries or having large solar cells or the like”, he said.

Advances in the development of cheaper robotics, confined to date in the mining and manufacturing sectors, provided another opportunity for agriculture.

“Increasingly we are seeing cheaper commodity platforms and possibly where we can use automation in industries like agriculture whereas today it’s only been used in mining or manufacturing.

“We’re at the point where we can think about completely different classes of vehicles and machinery that could be automated.

“We could have vehicles that are small, cheap worth $2-3000 that can run up and down a row and look for weeds and spray.”

Another big advance was around the types of materials used to enhance the power of computers that could change the cost of sensors and storage of data for example.

Dr Wark said the final emerging area concerned the growth of cloud based computer data services to consumers.

The roll-out of the National Broadband Network and access to these data services was becoming really important to regional and rural Australia.

Dr Wark said with this wave of new technologies it might be possible soon to measure things like soil condition, crop foliage and the state of animals more cheaply.

It could also be possible to more accurately predict likely yields and prices.

Dr Wark said the CSIRO was currently investigating the ability to capture and store more information in cattle identification ear tags.

“In a short amount of time for the same cost with these type of tags we will have the ability to get a rough location, a short summary of behaviourial attributes – the amount of time spent grazing and the like – and weight. That would completely change the way we monitor and optimize the management of cattle.”

The CSIRO was also studying devices that could be embedded in the rumen of animals to change the way animals are monitored and managed better. With advances in micro-electronics within 10 years, chips could also be embedded under the skin or swallowed by animals to allow monitoring of important parameters.

Another area the CSIRO was involved in was satellite remote sensing where estimates of pastures quantity and quality could be assessed and monitoring the location of animals on large northern beef properties.

The CSIRO was also interested in developing smaller and more cost effective soil moisture sensors for monitoring the impacts of carbon sequestration for example.

Advances in micro-climate monitoring would also allow temperature inversion in crops to be measured and decisions made about crop dusting.

3D laser technology used in the mining industry for mapping was becoming cheaper as well and could be used to estimate pasture quantities. “An individual producer can now spend $5k-$10k and have this equipment on their property.”

Dr Wark said building new industries around ICT was one way to increase productivity, profitability and environmental outcomes in a country that had a relatively expensive, well educated labour force.

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