Farming has long been among the most progressive of any industry, seeking more efficient ways to grow better crops and raise healthier livestock. This is particularly the case with Australian farmers, who are among the world leaders in adopting technology in radical new farm practices.
Precision farming harnesses the latest developments in agronomy to significantly improve the efficient use of natural resources, fertilisers, and agrichemicals. Such farming contributes to achieving environmentally sustainable outcomes, while also increasing yields and quality.
The SuniTAFE SMART Farm is being developed in partnership with multi-national food producers, industry peak bodies, University research centres, and agri-tech companies. It provides training in innovative technologies and precision agriculture practices that are revolutionising Australian agriculture and horticulture .This approach is helping local growers make the transition to digital farming and preparing a job-ready workforce to meet future demand.
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have become as commonplace as farming implements in just a few short years. Drone technology is performing a multitude of jobs in farm management that are improving efficiencies, cost-effectiveness, and environmental sustainability.
Monitoring crop health once meant lots of time-consuming and mundane inspection on foot, often resulting with inaccuracies in delivering the right treatment in the right areas. Drones fitted with cameras provide immediate visual reference of crop health, while GPS mapping pinpoints exactly the location of trouble spots.
On-board sensors allow drones to capture data that estimates chlorophyll concentration in assessing plant health and growth. Drone sensing also gauges soil quality (moisture, soil temperature, and nutrient levels) to determine the areas where irrigation and fertilisers are required.
Drones are proving particularly successful in crop spraying. Farmers are able to spray identified areas with precision, eliminating the indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides. Trialling is currently being done on fleets of drones capable of seeding by firing capsules containing seed and fertiliser into the soil to the exact depth.
Soil Moisture Sensors
With water shortage a constant challenge for Australian growers, soil moisture monitoring has become a primary farm activity. Soil moisture monitoring allows farmers to irrigate where it is required rather than under or over irrigate. This minimises water usage, plant stress, and the environmental impact of leaching nutrients or agricultural chemicals into groundwater.
While drone sensing can provide information on soil moisture, more accurate readings are gained by sensors placed in the soil. There are two main types of soil moisture sensors: suction based sensors measure water being retained in the soil, and volumetric based systems measure the total amount of water in the soil.
Soil sensors also take readings at varying depths. These can measure soil temperature, salinity, fertiliser movement and changes in the rate of plant water uptake. This data can be displayed visually on the unit that is manually read, or automatically transmitted by wireless technology from the paddock to the farmer’s desk-top or mobile device.
One of the major issues facing the farming industry is the shortage of skilled labour, particularly during harvesting. Autonomous harvesting robotics fitted with sensor technology can overcome this hurdle to productivity. Mapping software and harvest technologies are capable of identifying the optimum time to harvest.
Driverless tractor GPS guided technology is being adapted to traditional combine, forage, and specialty harvesters. Together with Long Range Area Wide Network (LoRaWan) connectivity, harvesting can begin automatically when the conditions are most suitable.
For the more delicate harvesting of fruit and vegetables, robotics are being developed that incorporate sophisticated cameras and algorithms. These can identify colour, shape and determine the level of ripeness. New Australian Agtech companies are collaborating directly with producers, to develop nimble, precision automated robots for specific crops, that don’t rely on being hooked onto a tractor.
Data and Analytics
Data and analytics have made a quantum leap in agriculture and horticulture. Farmers are already accustomed to collecting data on a number of factors in growing their produce. However, with advances in technology and software programming, data can now automatically translate into automated efficiencies within every stage of farming production.
The driving force of SMART Farming is the Internet of Things (IoT). This is the interconnection of digital equipment, allowing the relay of data collected by sensors to be sent through the internet to be immediately analysed. The results relay back to a receiving computer or mobile device and then instruct automated farm machinery to perform whatever task needs action.
Drip irrigation systems that better manage water usage have been in use by farmers for some time. Now, continuous soil moisture monitoring is achievable through sophisticated sensor monitoring, Cloud platforms with analytic software, and IoT technology connectivity. This means farmers only need to intervene when the system sounds an alert, otherwise irrigation works autonomously.
As more and more IoT devices are established on farms, the data that is collected will inform farmers on the health during every growth stage of their crops, enable assessment of soil quality, and provide accurate information in planning locations for planting that can optimize every aspect of farming management.
SuniTAFE understands how vitally important digital farming is to the future of Australia’s agriculture and horticulture industries. Its SMART Farm continues to keep abreast of the latest advances in farming technology and know-how. It is a place for farmers and suppliers to connect and be involved in trials and new technologies. It is also training digitally-literate workers with skills ready to operate SMART Farms in the Sunraysia and Mallee region.