New technology for farmers that works in the bush helps improve sustainability and credentials

Treasury Wine Estates is investing heavily in robots for its vineyards to collect data on the grapes and climate. ()

Australia relies on access to overseas markets for agricultural exports, but farmers are being asked to prove they are producing food sustainably to maintain that access.

Some of the technology to do that has been failing, particularly when it comes to farm robots and artificial intelligence, but that is beginning to change.

There has been a flood of new technology targeted at farmers in recent years that claims to improve sustainability, so which ones are genuinely useful and what actually works in the bush?

Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre chief scientist David Lamb said the roadway to innovation in the agrifood sector was “still littered with the corpses of failed solutions”.

“Five years ago we had an investor-fuelled tech bubble, we were almost ready to pop,” he said.

Professor Lamb said farmers were in a “trough of disillusionment”.

A man kneels behind a large drone with a spray container on the back in a paddock.

David Lamb with an agricultural drone used for aerial spraying.(ABC Riverina: Olivia Calver)


Bush internet still an obstacle

Limited access to fast internet across Australia makes it impossible in some areas to use robots that drive themselves or run systems that gather, process and share vast amounts of information.

But Professor Lamb said that was changing and getting connected was getting easier.

He pointed to companies such as internet provider Starlink and OneWeb that were using low earth orbit satellites to provide connectivity in the bush.

And there were ways of using that kind of connection to extend coverage across the farm.

“Some start-ups are offering farm-wide wi-fi that’s anchored to a gateway that’s using either the mobile network, or in our case on the smart farm here, our wi-fi is going to a single point that is anchored to Starlink,” he said.

Professor Lamb also pointed to companies such as Halo that have developed technology for farmers to monitor everything from irrigation systems, milk production and effluent to fuel.

satellite image of a farm

Downforce Technologies offers products that help farmers prove they are sustainable, in this case showing how successful they are at retaining soil carbon.(Supplied: Downforce Technologies)

What can farmers use now?

Once farmers have connectivity, there are a range of products they can use to measure and improve sustainability.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade was the chief scientist of the UN Environment Program and executive director of the European Environment Agency.

She was responsible for setting up some of the market access requirements Australian farmers are now facing.

digital image of a landscape

Downforce Technologies is producing “digital twin” images that take data from the farm to create an image that will help farmers improve sustainability.(Supplied: Downforce Technologies)


She later moved to Africa and created a company called Downforce Technologies, which is producing satellite reports for landholders that can track their sustainability activity.

Professor McGlade said the reports were like an X-ray of the property and what had been done over time.

“This is what happened to carbon, this is what happened to biodiversity, this is what happened to your water,” she said.

Robots in the vineyard

Treasury Wine Estates in Australia is using robots and data collection systems in its vineyards.

Robot in a vineyard

Treasury Wine Estates is using robots to monitor its grapes.(Supplied: Treasury Wine Estates)

Viticulture manager Benjamin Harris said that was because climate was key for the business.

“We’re investing heavily in automation including robotic operations in the vineyards and our wineries,” he said.

“If we look at the production data and learn how our vineyards are doing from a quality and yield point of view and overlay that with the climatic conditions we’re experiencing, [we can] look ahead two weeks and even three months to figure out how we should adjust our management.”

An aerial shot of a solar farm with other buildings

The Sundown Pastoral Company is using solar power and batteries to produce two-thirds of the energy needed for its cotton gin.(Supplied: Merallisolar)

Cotton gin run on green power

Sundown Pastoral Company has built its own solar plant and batteries and is now producing two-thirds of the power it needs to run its cotton gin near Moree in New South Wales.

The company also received a government grant to fund a plant that will produce hydrogen and hydrous ammonia, which will be up and running by June, and it will use the energy to produce fertiliser.

David Statham stands in a yard with trees, smiling at the camera

David Statham is the co-owner of Sundown Pastoral Company.(ABC News: Dominque Schwartz)

It is expected to produce about 15 tonnes of fuel a day, which is small in scale but will help to prove the technology for other businesses in Australia.

Co-owner David Statham said farmers would deliver cotton to the gin and be able to refuel with hydrogen or green electric energy or load up with green fertiliser.

“It’s 100 per cent green fuel, 100 per cent green fertiliser and it’s a circular economy with all your customers coming into the area bringing the trucks and the products in,” he said.

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