Information, communication technologies (ICT) has an important role to play in terms of increasing agricultural productivity, according to Tim Wark of CSIRO.

Dr Wark was a speaker at the ninth Conference of the Asian Federation for Information Technology in Agriculture, held at Edith Cowan University in Perth during October.

He said the technologies available to the agricultural sector ranged from crop and animal sensing to various developments in automation and robotics.

Automation — where vehicles drive themselves — is not yet widely used in agriculture but could have a bigger role in the future.

“Automation is taking off in other sectors and we will see this happen in agriculture, ” Dr Wark said.

“Technologically, cars can drive themselves, it’s just a matter of getting over the legal and other issues, but the ability is there.

“The current issue in agriculture is that it is a huge risk to see 30 or 40-tonne machines automated.

“It does happen in the mining environment. That is because they have the ability to fence off whole areas where there are no humans close by. On a typical farm that is not likely to be possible.

“However, there have been advances in smaller mobile vehicles.

Advances in GPS had been one of the real advantages to agriculture.

“GPS can take away the issue of human error (as well as providing full automation), ” Dr Wark said.

Other developments that have an important place include sensors.

These included ground-based/in-situ sensing for soil, water, and climate, and low-cost cameras that may monitor, for example, a distant water tank.

Sensors can also be applied to animals for monitoring and tracking.

Meanwhile, Dr Wark said the ability to monitor, through satellite or remote sensing, the farm’s microclimate was one of the main ways technology was being used in agriculture — and these devices were becoming more accessible.

“This is using technology that has been around 10 years, ” he said.

“We are getting to the point that sensors that were once $20,000 or $30,000 now cost just a few thousand and, consequently, the availability of satellite and remote sensing is increasing.”

Another speaker, University of New England (NSW) professor David Lamb spoke on precision agriculture but said the “dependency cycle” was slowing down advancements and uptake.

“There are farmers who think they need the technology, but are not quite sure what it is they need, ” he said.

“They know they have problems to address — for example, fertiliser or pasture utilisation.

“We have people out there who develop products and services. These people are wondering how much time and effort should be spent developing these, how much should be developed for the growers and how much should they charge.

“Farmers are also questioning how much time and effort should they invest in learning how to use the product to use and get the best value out of it, how much they will really use it on the farm, and how much they should pay."

Professor Lamb said that dependency cycle locked things down and was the single biggest reason why precision agriculture in Australia had probably not exceeded more than 30 per cent adoption across industry (higher in the grain sector).

“This is part of the problem, is pricing, how much to pay and how much to charge, and how much time and investment is required by those developing — and how much time and effort by those using, ” Professor Lamb said.

He said it was the next generation that was likely to unlock the cycle, including university students and the sons and daughters of farmers who could see the advantages of putting technology to work on the farm.


PHOTO: Tim Wark from CSIRO and David Lamb from University of New England

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