Farming on IoT

Image credit: iStockphoto/Ekkasit919

Craig Brewin is a farmer in the south-east region of South Australia and works on several blocks, one of which is a leased property around 100 kilometers from the main farm.

He recently installed four solar-powered sensors on his Maranoa Downs property and attached them to a number of his water tanks. 

The sensors power up with the sun, send data up into space via satellite, and Brewin checks what is happening with his tanks via an app on his phone. 

“The water level is made into a graph, and we can see our trends in water usage throughout the day,” Brewin told local media recently.

“It tells us how quick the tank is filling or when there’s a leak, as we get an alert if there’s excessive water use, or the tank is getting too low, and we need to fill it again.” 

Planting sensors

In January, Brewin had just returned from the leased property around 100 kilometers away and received an alert that the level in one of the tanks had fallen suddenly and a pipe had become disconnected.

“We hadn’t planned on going back for a couple of days,” said Brewin.

“So, it was lucky we got the alert as that could have been a lot of water lost and our livestock put at risk.”

Brewin’s example is just one example of a revolution sweeping the agriculture industry in Australia and worldwide as the IoT devices become activated.

In Australia, the digitalization of agriculture comes in a convergence with the rapid rise of the local space industry and ecosystem. It spans the production of sensors, cube-sized satellites, and a developing civilian launch capability.

Dr. Tim Parsons, the non-executive chairman of the Space Industry Association of Australia, says this “Space 2.0” is all about the “democratization” of space. It is driven by microelectronics and a much smaller and lower-cost launch infrastructure.

Among his other work, Parsons has been doing some consulting with Farmbot, the company which provided the sensors used on the Brewin farm.

Farmbot, says Parsons, is “using space technology to solve that last mile issue for farmers” who would otherwise have to check levels once a week, often on remote parts of their land. 

“There are probably around 30,000 farmers driving around right now checking water on their property,” says Parsons. 

“They might get to these places once a week to take a measurement, and that is the only piece of data they have which might tell them the animals are water-stressed.”

The Farmbot sensors, he says, save time, save water, make for healthier crops and herds, and ultimately contribute to a more efficient and sustainable agricultural industry.

Craig Brewin, for example, says the Farmbot sensors mean his farm uses less electricity. 

Pumps are only activated when the sensors tell him the tank levels are low, where previously he would have been pumping continually, just in case levels were full.

Other anecdotal evidence also strongly endorses the technology. Another South Australian grazer has reduced water runs by 90%, while in the Northern Territory, a cattle station says it has saved more than AUD20,000 a year through using the Farmbot solution.

Agtech momentum grows

These advances are significant, but they may not be enough, according to Farmbot managing director Andrew Coppin.

Australia’s National Farmers’ Federation has a goal for agriculture to become an AUD 100 billion industry. Still, Coppin says that a much greater investment must be made in technology to achieve this.

“The federal government recently announced an investment in digital agriculture, with AUD 86 million set aside to establish eight adoption and innovation hubs across regional Australia and the development of Digital Foundations for Agriculture Strategy,” Coppin wrote recently in an op-ed article.

“A great start, but we must see sustained investment, alongside impactful action and a national agtech strategy.”

Coppin says Australia already has a “flourishing” ecosystem of agtech startups with “skin in the game when it comes to growing innovative businesses.” They have had years of success built on research but also through fostering deep connections with producers. 

Blockchain is rapidly developing solutions through the agricultural supply chain, while drone technology combines with the Farmbot-style sensing solution to deliver digital transparency and insights. 

One critical development has been creating the Australian AgriTech Association, an industry body established to push things even harder. 

“With a more volatile climate and uncertain international trade, Australia can no longer rely on the status quo,” Coppin said.

“Investing in agtech will help shore up our agricultural future and propel a newly emerging sector, which we should be a global leader of, into its next phase of growth.”

Meanwhile, at Maranoa Downs, Craig Brewin is also using AgriWebb, software that takes all farm data and aggregates it into one program. 

It is stored in a cloud-based app and is shared with all the workers and stakeholders on the farm.

“We all have the app, so we are on the same page when it comes to stock rotations and locations, treatments, paddock history for spraying, and so on,” Brewin told the local media.

“I can just tell a staff member where they need to go, and they can look on the app and see where those cattle are and move to the next location. It works really well.”

Farmbot and AgriWebb have already made a real difference at Maranoa Downs, and Brewin is thinking about virtual fencing, drones, and cameras at strategic points on his property.

The farm of the future is almost here, and its momentum is not only improving Australia’s agricultural sector but driving a new direction for its technology industry. 

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and HR&DigitalTrends, and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborate with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Ekkasit919