Agtech brains ready to cultivate our Silicon Plains

Primary production now calls on data – lots of it – to make broadscale farming as productive and cost-efficient as possible.

Internet-based innovations such as the internet of things, big data analytics, robotics and remote sensor technology are boosting yields and reducing costs.

But what if your internet access is rubbish, or unaffordable? That’s the challenge facing agtech specialists and farmers in most rural and remote parts of Queensland.

What if reliable, city-grade internet at competitive prices was widely available? The brilliant minds in the bush could create our own Silicon Valley – Australia’s Silicon Plains.

Bring on QCN Fibre: the Queensland Government-owned corporation set up in 2019 to enable better internet for regional areas and help businesses develop and thrive.

QCN Fibre is using the spare capacity or “backhaul” in thousands of kilometres of high-capacity fibre optic cables already in place for Powerlink and Energex.

Those fibres can carry internet and data services at capacities of up to 100 GB between sites or to a central point, and QCN Fibre is selling that capacity to local internet service providers, or ISPs who carry out the “last mile” connections.

Agronomist and soil specialist Brendan Griffiths from Precision Cropping Technologies (PCT) says the prospect of better internet is “gold” for farming.

Soil specialist Brendan Griffiths from Precision Cropping Technologies (PCT). Photo courtesy PCT
Soil specialist Brendan Griffiths from Precision Cropping Technologies (PCT). Photo courtesy PCT

Mr Griffiths is one of several creative and determined people at Goondiwindi who’ve been pushing for improvements – and they’re excited that the town’s link-up is only weeks away.

“We are already embracing technology,” Mr Griffiths said.

“Farmers use sensors to check soil moisture, salt accumulation and information from crop canopies, to get feedback from tractors and yield information for harvesters, and to analyse spatial variability in soil and how that influences crop yields.

“Growers can use networks of sensors to take their operations to the next level, doing it objectively by measuring, not subjectively. They can reduce their production costs, and costs to the environment, by using the data from sensors to tailor their inputs such as fertiliser,” he said.

All that data generates huge files, which in the case of his company, has to be downloaded, uploaded and shared remotely among 12 staff in a virtual office.

“High-speed internet will improve sharing of our huge files that can be as a large as 50 gigabytes,” Mr Griffiths said.

He’s aware that another local agtech specialist, InFarm founder Jerome Leray, has also been dealing with the need for better internet. Mr Leray helps producers target weeds and feral animals, using footage and artificial intelligence that create massive data files. He’s also looking forward to the arrival of faster data services.

Agtech innovator Jerome Leray from InFarm. Photo courtesy InFarm
Agtech innovator Jerome Leray from InFarm. Photo courtesy InFarm

Mr Leray chose Goondiwindi as the place to base his agtech company in 2017 due to the region’s rich history of agricultural innovation.

“On a per-capita basis, Goondiwindi is the agtech capital of Australia. Now we can move to the next level, thanks to the improved speed and pricing as a result of an alliance between QCN Fibre, our local ISP Country Broadband Network (CBN) and Queensland’s Channel Wireless,” he said.

InFarm uses artificial intelligence to provide solutions for farmers with vast land holdings, including weed detection for spot spraying, identification and location of feral animals, and detection and prediction of aquatic algal blooms.

“We work directly with the agricultural sector to identify unique challenges and use satellite, drone or ground-based imagery to support the development of innovative solutions,” Mr Leray said.

“Precision agriculture is largely technologically driven through software and is very data-heavy. The improved internet service at the right price gives us the backbone to reach even greater heights with our innovative solutions,” he said.

Mr Leray is working closely with CBN’s Director Trent Murray who welcomes the prospect of providing more connections and upgrading existing customers’ internet speeds to rival metro areas, at no additional cost.

“Working with QCN Fibre and Channel Wireless means we can live and work in our beautiful region and no longer suffer the ‘digital divide’,” Mr Murray said.

He has helped Mr Leray connect InFarm’s supercomputer to a mini data centre in Goondiwindi – a promising sign for the future of high-tech enterprise in the town.

“CBN is aiming to be the engine that entices new businesses to town,” Mr Murray said.

“As the only locally owned ISP, we’re locals supporting locals, and we’ve been providing high-speed internet to the region for more than two and a half years. We’re looking forward to expanding our network thanks to the increased capacity from partnering with QCN Fibre.”

At Richmond in north Queensland, grazier and computer systems engineer William Harrington champions the use of technology in agriculture. He decided to set up a wireless ISP, Wi-Sky Queensland. He is using QCN Fibre’s cheaper backhaul to improve local telco and digital services.

Wi-Sky Queensland at work in Richmond
Wi-Sky Queensland at work in Richmond

Aided by Mr Harrington’s ISP and his technology, producers have more reliable internet to harvest data from sensors and cameras they use remotely, monitoring cattle watering points, stock condition or crop growth. Mr Harrington is looking forward to expanding his wireless service to more towns in the north.

These agtech mavens are modest about their role in bringing better internet to places far from Brisbane. But they should be proud, because the improvement will benefit regional industries and lives beyond their own.

Goondiwindi’s Julia Spicer, Director of Engage and Create Consulting, helps regional businesses map out their futures, and also to access services at the town’s business hub.

Julia Spicer: good internet is now on our hierarchy of needs. Photo: Grace Quast
Julia Spicer: good internet is now on our hierarchy of needs. Photo: Grace Quast

Mrs Spicer says internet access can now be seen as part of our “hierarchy of needs” as it brings a range of benefits for businesses, families, and quality of life.

“Good internet is important for business operations and online meetings, but also for schooling, for tertiary education, and for agricultural businesses to attract workers with their families,” Mrs Spicer said.

“Internet access brings endless opportunities for growth, for existing and for new businesses. Something will emerge that we haven’t even thought of yet. Also, people who marry into the area will be able to establish businesses.

“There are health benefits: telehealth will be easier and specialists will have better connection with patients. Aged care, one of the town’s biggest employers, needs better internet to run best-practice software.

I’ll be better able to help my customers with online training, and to put their services online.

“A lot of people rely on internet for schooling and university study, and access was a big drama during COVID, especially with several in a household working and studying online at home.

“Better internet will encourage a worker’s family to move west, not just the worker – there are good jobs on offer, but the families want the social connection and entertainment of good online service. Kids want Netflix!”

She added that while decentralisation to the regions was often proposed, new arrivals still had to be able to turn on a computer.

“Give us good internet, and jobs will flow!” Mrs Spicer said.

QCN Fibre CEO Derek Merdith agreed that the benefits of the backhaul rollout could not be underestimated.

QCN Fibre CEO Derek Meredith
QCN Fibre CEO Derek Meredith

“By improving internet, we are bridging the digital divide between the metropolitan areas and regions, providing more opportunities and helping to future-proof Queensland’s regions,” Mr Merdith said.

“QCN Fibre is partnering with local internet service providers, as well as the major carriers, to improve coverage, capacity and cost in the regions.

“We’re fortunate to have so many innovators and entrepreneurs in regional Queensland, who can only benefit from improved connectivity,” he said.

 
Last updated 01 Oct, 2020
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia (CC BY-ND 3.0) ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/au/ )
 
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