Award-winning Swan Systems continues to deliver

By: Lincoln Bertolli

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Perth-based Swan Systems uses cloud-based technology to help farmers manage their water use, irrigation and crop health

Swan Systems says that water savings can be achieved from between 20 to 30 per cent

What started as a challenge during a consulting job for Rio Tinto has evolved into a company that beat global competition for an agricultural technology startup award last December.

Founded in 2016, Swan’s origins can be traced further back to 2010 when two of the eventual co-founders – Ivor Gaylard and Tim Hyde, whose backgrounds are in farming and consulting – were working with mining giant Rio Tinto on an environmentally-sensitive job near Karijini National Park in Western Australia.

"They needed to know seven days in advance, on any given day, how much water was going where," says Gaylard, who is Swan’s chief operating officer and head of product development.

"There were a lot of extra challenges over and above normal farming challenges.

"We took our existing systems and ways of doing things and added an extra level on to that, so over a couple of years we built systems which enabled us to do that efficiently.

Ivor Gaylard, Swan's chief operating officer and head of product development

"They had installed a lot of soil moisture sensors, flow meters [and] weather stations, and a lot of that data was coming through to our office.

"We built systems which helped us to take that data and turn it into meaningful day-to-day operational decisions – working out the optimum amount of water to apply, the fertiliser program and doing all the reporting."

The success of this led to further interest from other parties and, in 2016, Gaylard and Hyde joined with Rod Campbell and formed Swan Systems to commercialise their product.

"We basically took what was an in-house system and put it on the Cloud and made it scalable and suitable for any crop and any irrigation system," says Gaylard.

WINNING PITCH

Swan – which stands for Scheduling Water and Nutrients – first took out the top honour in the Digital Innovation category at WA’s Innovator of the Year awards in 2018. It then won the global ag-tech category in Rabobank’s Foodbytes! Pitch awards for startups last year and was one of only two Australian companies named in a subsequent Rabobank report as ‘startups to watch’ in 2021.

So, for a software-based innovation, rather than a physical piece of farm equipment, how does it all work?

"Swan is a decision-support system. It integrates with a lot of hardware but we don’t deal with hardware ourselves," says Gaylard.

"In a lot of cases, we can come in and the farmer has got some existing hardware and we just plug in to that. We bring their data in and help them make daily irrigation decisions – how much to irrigate, when to irrigate and manage their seasonal water use so they can do budgeting, planning for the season and then track their water use against that budget over the season.

"We can help do fertiliser programs or bring in their own programs and then track what they’re actually doing against that program and allow them to manage that, and we bring in satellite imagery as well which they can use to keep an eye on the health of their fields and identify issues, particularly irrigation-related issues.

"There are some directly measurable financial benefits. A lot of the time there are water savings and quite often in the region of 20 to 30 per cent.

"There are also yield increases by providing plants with optimum water and quality increases as well so the effect on a farmer’s bottom line is significant and measurable.

"There are a whole lot of benefits that are harder to quantify like more efficient oversight of what’s going on, easier management and incorporating best practice in a systemised way so staff coming in and out can quickly pick up what’s going on."

Swan is a decision support system that helps farmers manage their irrigation and fertiliser programs via a cloud-based platform

NEXT STEP

The nature of their technology means Swan Systems can maintain customers from any location.

The bulk of Swan’s business is in South Australia but they also have plenty of clients in WA and Australia’s eastern states, plus countries including New Zealand, United States and Gaylard’s native Zimbabwe, he says.

After a "steady increase" in customers since the commercialisation, Gaylard says he is happy with how Swan Systems has evolved and hopes to continue the product’s expansion in the coming years.

"It took a couple of years to build the Cloud-based product and we’ve had a steady increase since then," he says.

"It starts off slowly then starts picking up as people get used to it and as we gradually add features and improve the product.

"It’s at a stage now where it’s really beginning to take off.

"We haven’t lost a customer yet so once people take it on, they stay with it."

Being able to "talk back to control systems" and bringing in different sensor data are among Swan’s immediate plans for product development. While Swan will "not try and reinvent the wheel", Gaylard says they are also looking at how the product can integrate with others into the future.

"We’re very keen on collaboration and fitting in with other products and I think that’s the way the industry is going," he says.

"People want things that talk to each other, so I think being part of that ag-tech ecosystem is where we would be heading."

 

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