There’s a lot of hi-tech activity going on at the University of New England’s (UNE) Kirby SMART Farm near Armidale NSW, but much of it is invisible to the naked eye.
Talk to UNE Professor David Lamb and you’ll learn that Kirby is run by the University as a working property and used extensively for research and education. The 2,900-hectare farm is a test-bed for new technologies and practices, bringing together researchers across many disciplines with the aim of improving productivity, environmental sustainability and support services for farming communities.
Kirby’s hi-tech Innovation Centre, which sits right in the middle of grazing pasture, is directly connected to AARNet’s high-speed optical fibre network. AARNet connects the Centre to the UNE campus and the AARNet national backbone over multiple 10 Gigabit per second links. Elsewhere on the Farm access to the AARNet network is via telemetry sensor networks with additional access provided by wireless and satellite national broadband network links.
"Access to AARNet is a critical enabler for the increasingly data-intensive research carried out on the Farm, as well as for fostering the kinds of cross-institutional collaborations that drive innovation in agriculture," said Prof. Lamb
Developing sustainable, manageable and accessible rural technologies
Research at Kirby is focused on developing sustainable, manageable and accessible rural technologies; hence the acronym SMART is used to describe the farm. The goal, says Lamb, is to develop a world-class whole farm ‘landscape laboratory’ national research facility that will also provide a platform for commercial enterprises to test relevant innovations.
With an unprecedented level of external and internal connectivity, the farm is being used to develop new technologies as well as explore and demonstrate the impact of broadband and digital services for the rural sector.
Live map of soil and environmental conditions is decision-making tool for farmers
CSIRO and UNE scientists have created a live map of soil and environmental conditions from data gathered from one hundred local sensors and two local weather stations at the farm. Sensors monitor soil moisture, temperature, electrical conductivity and air temperature and the weather stations measure air temperature, humidity, and pressure, wind speed and direction, rainfall and hail, as well as solar radiation.
For farmers, this kind of vital information can be used for decision-making, about when to fertilize, irrigate, sow seed or move cattle.
The sensors on the Farm may have been expensive at the time of installation, but they are helping scientists answer big questions about big data and how things work at the sub-paddock scale.
"The cost per unit for soil moisture sensors and wireless networking hardware is steadily going down and we face a future where farms will be the ultimate Internet of Things,” said Lamb
Monitoring cattle behaviour using GPS collars and ear tag tracking devices
Two projects in partnership with the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information and Taggle Systems are evaluating systems for monitoring cattle behaviour from computers and mobile devices. One project is exploring the use of GPS collars and the other, ear tag tracking devices. Other projects include testing new airborne sensor technologies to control fertiliser application from crop-dusting aircraft.
With groups such as Landgate, Boeing Insitu, ICT International and Dosec, the team is also evaluating technologies ranging from satellite images to drones and on-ground sensor clusters that enable monitoring the growth of plants in natural environments with unprecedented detail and accuracy.
Lamb says access to broadband is critical for improving productivity on Australian farms and researchers are also exploring high definition videoconferencing for the delivery of a range of services, including training.
Inspiring the next generation to pursue careers in agriculture
A growing number of university, vocational and high school students studying agriculture and related subjects already use live plant, animal and machine data streams from Kirby in the classroom. Lamb hopes to inspire a new generation of students to pursue careers in precision agriculture through exposure to the cutting edge technologies demonstrated on the farm.
He says with the Farm’s AARNet-connected Innovation Centre now open for business, Kirby is an innovative virtual resource, unmatched in the world, for university, vocational and high school students to observe the workings of a landscape in real-time using the latest technologies no matter where they live in Australia and internationally.
“Measuring attributes of landscape and animals, key farm management points of decision making and intelligence gathering technologies, everything on the farm will be connected to the outside world and integrated into UNE’s teaching and research – our aim is for it be a virtual lab that everyone has access to,” said Lamb.