Space Tech to boost Aussie Ag

By: Anthony Wingard

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Improvements to satellite connectivity, geo-location and remote sensing over the next ten years could be a rocket for Aussie ag profits

Space Tech to boost Aussie Ag
Remote sensing, geo-location and satellite connectivity can all be improved to help Aussie Farmers

 

The same technology that first put man on the moon could soon be used to boost Australia’s agricultural industry by upwards of $15 billion, according to a study.

The study, conducted by The Australian National University (ANU) was released by AgriFutures Australia this week and outlined the benefits of using space technologies to further advance the agricultural sector.

Space-based technologies – opportunities for the rural sector aimed to give producers awareness of the possibilities of available space technologies within the industry and the potential insights it could offer over the next decade.

It found that improvements to geo-location alone could benefit the industry by $2.2 billion alone over a 30-year period.

Similarly, satellite connectivity has the potential to add $15.6 billion to the gross value of production in sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and forestry.

AgriFutures Australia Senior Manager – Rural Futures, Jennifer Medway, says while other industries such as mining have long utilised space and its relevant technologies, the rural sector is on the cusp of unleashing potential.

"It’s exciting. The farmer of the future will have space technology fully integrated into their everyday production systems and decision making," says Medway.

"For instance, dashboards will enable farmers to remotely manage manual processes and interoperable data systems will radically shift the way on-farm decisions are made.

"All this is made possible through space technology, which has the potential to revolutionise the working day of tomorrow’s farmers."

The report suggests that while some technologies are already employed throughout the industry, such as satellite imaging, low-bandwidth sensors and GPS tracking, the use of space-tech is still in its infancy, and the scope and opportunities they present are yet to be fulfilled.

Despite that, the technologies currently in use have already been beneficial, delivering  safer farms, a more digitally connected rural community, increased water efficiency and an overall more forward-thinking ‘global’ mindset, the report says.

Target Locked

Australia’s goal of growing the agricultural sector into a $100 billion industry by 2030 will ultimately hinge on space-based technology, which will also be imperative if the country aims to remain competitive on the international scale.

For agriculture, the use of space-based technology largely falls into three distinct categories: remote sensing, geo-location and connectivity – all of which can be fully maximised to help farmers across the country.

The report found the large-scale nature of broadacre cropping and livestock farming in Australia lends itself well to space-based remote sensing given the speed with which satellites can scan large areas. Comparatively, more intensive farming systems such as horticulture and dairy can be better served by drones or other in-field technologies.

Remote sensing includes technologies such as light cameras, which can map crop distributions from local to national scales, infrared cameras, which give insights into plant heath and vegetation and soil moisture, and satellites, which can estimate plant growth using normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI).

Director and Agronomist at Ag Grow Agronomy in NSW, Barry Haskins, says crop sensing technologies can help farmers maximise the use of their land.

"Sometimes you can see areas that fertiliser or sowing has missed, before we go out on the farm for crop scouting," Haskins says.

"When we are dealing with very large-scale farms and paddocks, it is useful to see the area by satellite. It doesn’t save us time, but it allows us to be more targeted and more strategic."

SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre, a consortium of universities and other research organisations aimed at developing advancements in telecommunications and connectivity, has already pledged its support of remote sensing development by investing in a $25 million research program in advanced telecommunications, intelligent satellite systems, Earth observation and remote sensing analytics.

Spot on

Geo-location provides data on positioning, navigation and timing of machines, equipment and livestock in real time; and by using these satellite technologies, precise information can be gathered.

Currently, GPS systems deliver real-time accuracy for farmers in Australia with an accuracy of around one metre; however in 2025, a new Satellite-based Augmentation System (SBAS) will be unveiled in Australia and New Zealand, which will improve accuracy to just 10cm.

The opportunities in geo-location are vast however one area has been specified in the report – autonomous farming – an area which has undergone sizeable development in recent years following advances in robotics and machine vision.

Advantages of geo-location include reduced labour costs, easier transport and less soil compaction while another study in the United Kingdom has found these technologies are already economically viable for farmers.

Connectivity has long been a limitation for farmers in rural and remote Australia given the unreliability of coverage in the affected areas and cost constraints of improving infrastructure despite over 75 per cent of rural farmers stating that internet connection was important to their business.

Already though, recent technical advances from satellites and telecommunications companies have improved the availability of connectivity; ensuring farmers have access to mobile and data connections – something the report says is ‘crucial to enable the adoption of many new technologies’ and ‘ensure Australian agriculture remains globally competitive’.

Together, the technologies of remote sensing, geo-location and connectivity can help fulfil the potential of space technologies in agriculture, which Medway says is imperative to the future of the industry.

"Agriculture’s time is now. To stay competitive and continue to up the ante on increasing productivity and sustainability, we need to look to fixes ‘outside the square’," she says.

"Space technology is one of those fixes."

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