- The use of web-enabled, digital technology to measure soil moisture is helping farmers, across a wide range of agricultural pursuits
- To make informed decisions, farmers and land managers need timely and relevant information from their own and third-party sources in a consolidated and easily accessible format.
- Design and development of soil condition monitoring equipment will one day include real-time data on chemical composition and nutrient levels.
- Sensors that constantly update environmental factors such as moisture and wind, provide ancillary benefits such as monitoring bushfire danger conditions.
- This technology also has wider application, such as in the health care industry monitoring the cold-storage of vaccines and medicinal products.
As climate and weather patterns change, intermittent rainfall and warmer temperatures highlight the need for increasingly sophisticated water management. For agricultural producers, the task of accurately scheduling periods of surface or sub-surface delivered irrigation to maintain optimal levels of soil moisture becomes even more difficult. The use of web-enabled, digital technology to measure soil moisture is helping famers, across a wide range of agricultural pursuits, to determine the best ways to deliver irrigated water to crops and pasture. The result, in addition to determining optimum watering times, is farmers are recognising savings in power and water costs. It also assists in limiting the loss of fertiliser from agricultural soil through leaching, reducing costs and preventing environmental damage.
Recently FDI took the opportunity to interview Mr. Kieran Coupe from Outpost Central, a company founded in New Zealand and now established in Australia, the United States and Europe. The company is engaged in providing technologically advanced, computer-based monitoring systems to broad-acre irrigation and dryland farming.
FDI: What services does Outpost Central offer, and do they address farmers’ information needs? Are there information gaps?
KC: Outpost Central develops hardware and software systems to remotely collect data from on-farm meters and sensors and link it to information available from external, publicly accessible sources such as the Bureau of Meteorology. We then process the data and extract insights and present it in a format that farmers and land managers can access through Smartphones, website logins and notifications like SMS messaging and email services. We also combine all the information within a web environment.
The information is tailored for use by farmers in a wide range of ways depending on their needs and the nature of their operations. These may be, for example, broad-acre and dryland farming, horticulture, agro-forestry and cotton farming. Our technology is also being used in non-farming instances, like turf management on sporting fields and public open space.
Regarding information gaps, probably the key area within farming enterprises relates to soil chemistry. There are very good sensors available for measuring soil moisture, providing information relevant to both irrigated and non-irrigated farming applications. One of the other important information requirements for farmers relates to measuring soil nutrient levels. The industry is now developing sensors that will allow real-time monitoring of individual soil nutrient levels. This is an emerging area that we hope will complement existing technologies within a few years. Information analysis is another area that can be developed. Farmers are currently able to access a wide range of information, carried on a variety of platforms – this could be as diverse as market price fluctuations or details about local pests and weeds of concern. The industry has acknowledged that farmers require information to be consolidated, rather than being continually bombarded from disparate sources. Our strategy over time will be to try to incorporate as much of the data a farmer needs, not just from own products but other third-party sources.
FDI: How do these services benefit farmers and land managers and how are they complementary to other data collection services?
KC: Our products and services provide actionable insights not possible without the assistance of technology. For example, during herbicide application, SMS alerts from wind sensors can prevent over or under spraying, drift and general waste of product and fuel. The Fire Danger Index can also be broadcast by SMS. These would alert a farmer to air temperature, wind speed and humidity factors dictating safe times to operate farm harvesting equipment during periods of high fire danger. Our sensors can also assist a farmer to determine the right time to bale hay by measuring the moisture content in the hay.
Other day to day alerts guiding on-farm activities might be reports and web-based graphical tools to inform irrigation patterns. These will provide two key elements of information: when and how much irrigated water needs to be applied. Soil sub-surface sensors provide information for presentation in a simple graphical format with updated alerts to the grower. We can analyse trends in rainfall and soil moisture at resolutions growers are not ordinarily able to accomplish. Multiple sensors can density placed to measure and broadcast data at typically 15-minute intervals. This is opposed to manually reading and recording water levels in rain gauges. Growers can base management decisions on reliably accurate and timely information. We can even automate water application remotely if required.
As we and farmers develop a deeper understanding about the data, we can develop ways to better manage soil condition. Furthermore, we have found that as customers become familiar with the data they learn how their crops react to management inputs. They are then performing some very detailed and specific manipulation of soil condition. Drying out their soil, for example, can concentrate sugars in a grape crop prior to picking. Managing irrigation water is not only about optimising yield. Careful manipulation of water availability can significantly improve the quality of their produce.
Our sensors have also been used to monitor water levels and flow rates in tanks used for stock watering. In wider grazing applications we do a lot work relating to leak detection, stock water management and waste prevention.
FDI: Is there a high maintenance liability on the monitoring equipment you provide?
KC: In the past we dealt with water meters located in the open, exposed to harsh environmental conditions. This resulted in a relatively short asset life. Outpost Central has invested considerable research and development into hardware products that are small and have almost no maintenance liability. They are rugged, compact, ultraviolet light stable, long-life and completely waterproof. Long battery life is a significant feature of our equipment. They are solid-state with no moving parts. We design our equipment to be completely non-user serviceable. This includes the software and firmware element which mean the farmer does not need to make setting changes in the field. We can make most necessary changes utilising our web-based services from the comfort of our offices or from the farmer’s lounge room.
FDI: Are there potential applications of the technology to broader farming outside of agriculture?
KC: Most definitely. Our Wildeye equipment is that brand providing to farmers the broad agricultural suite of applications we’ve spoken about. The same underlying technology is in use by water utilities all over Australia. Our products are being used on residential water meters to support end use studies and water meters in remote mining and Indigenous communities to monitor flow rates and to identify leaks. We are contracted to service environmental monitoring in remote areas in the Pilbara region of WA to monitor rainfall levels and streamflow. This will inform flood models to facilitate emergency warning to evacuate mine sites if upstream levels suddenly rise due to heavy rainfall.
The same underlying intellectual property works in other applications. For instance, our Galileo brand operates in the healthcare industry, predominantly hospitals. These devices are placed in vaccine fridges to monitor temperature to ensure vaccines do not breach temperature storage protocols or to warn when they have.
An example of large-scale operations employing our technology is our engagement with Harvey Water, servicing a major irrigation district. Here, we are providing real-time data for billing purposes. This replaces the procedure of using staff and vehicles to manually collect a reading from customer’s water meter. This has significantly reduced operating costs, staffing requirements and occupational health and safety concerns. Moreover, Harvey Water now has a far greater visibility of customer water usage, creating significant savings for both parties. Our systems also operate with up to five or six other large irrigation networks around Australia resulting in several thousand monitoring devices on our platforms to provide important irrigation network management information.
FDI: How does Outpost Central ensure the security of the data collected by your hardware?
KC: Data sovereignty is the term denoting that stored digital information is subject to the laws of the country in which it is located. This is a reasonably significant issue in agriculture. Traditionally, risk adverse organisations such as government departments, raise concerns about access and ownership of sensitive data stored in commercial data centres. We have also found that in some instances when developing business arrangements with farmers, questions arise concerning data security. To alleviate any customer concerns, we have implemented a strategy allowing farmers to keep their own copies of the data we collect. These might include yield mapping data or herbicide application strategies. Our business practices indicate it is their data and we only use it for business purposes. We do not on-sell information or use it for any other purpose.
Outpost Central has been operating Cloud based computer servers for 15 years. Over this period of time we have worked very hard to enable our customers to understand why we use Cloud platforms. The expected strategy in the past would be to install our own servers on which to deposit and store the data that our hardware provides. Now there are massive Cloud facilities that store data from an enormous range of applications from internet banking through to water and electricity accounts, to legal and insurance companies storing their information. Consequently, we have learnt our customers expect that, with advancements in technology, that we use Cloud-based commercial data centres located in Australia, to deposit and store their data – they would be somewhat nervous if we suggested using our own self-managed computer servers because Cloud technology is the way of the future.