Future Farming: Climate Change, Satellites and Smart Irrigation

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During his tour of areas affected by the drought in New South Wales and Queensland in early June, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated "I don't know many people in rural New South Wales that I talk to that don't think the climate is getting drier and rainfall is becoming more volatile."

A devastating issue for Australia

Indeed, climate change is a devastating issue for Australia in recent times. Southeast Australia has seen its worst autumn with record high temperatures and dryness which triggered fire warnings while New South Wales, South Australia, Northern Victoria and Western Australia can look forward to a dry and below average rainfall in winter. One of the biggest victims of climate change are farmers for climate change means a disruption to their livelihood.

Most vegetation and crops that are grown today have adapted to the climate of the past years. There are clearly defined poor, average and favourable conditions in which crops can grow. Climate change will tip and, in some cases, already has tipped the scales of balance. Farmers can no longer predict the optimal time for them to plant seeds. The increasing heat and altered rainfall patterns have caused distressing droughts. Without proper irrigation, areas in the East Coast are looking at their third, and for some, the fourth year without crops. Some even chose not to seed at all citing a lack of optimism for the crops due to the climate. Almost 70% of Australia’s wine-growing regions will be unfavourable for grapes by 2050 as warmer temperatures cause grapes to ripen faster than usual, compromising the flavour and quality. Warmer temperatures don’t just distress us, they also upset livestock and the milk they produce by 10-25%. Wheat, maize, and rice do not thrive well beyond 30°C. Climate change also exacerbates bushfires and cyclones, further affecting farm yield.

This concern of poor yield is not just that of farmers, it also affects the everyday citizen in Australia. With such poor production of food and the high demand for consumption, food prices continue to increase. Fruits increased in price by 43% while vegetables increased by 33% since 2007.

The current Farm Household Allowance Scheme offers financial aid and benefits, loans and counselling and funds have been raised by the public all over Australia to support farm families during these difficult times. While these may be good short-term solutions, climate change continues to occur with no positive or promising outlook within the near future. The continued impact on irrigation and agriculture is forcing farmers and other stakeholders to look into other long-term solutions.

One of those longer term solutions is to increase the use of technology to facilitate the prediction of events and the preparedness of farmers in case these happen. This is the role that data has to play on the farm, facilitating decision-making and being able to better adapt to changing parameters - which is exactly what the Internet of Things is about: an intertwined network of objects (sensors, irrigators, pumps) interacting together to provide optimal efficiency and predictability. 

 

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They key is to deploy sensors

They key is to deploy sensors to support the regulation of water during times of low rainfall and heat. Smart irrigation done through IoT determines the soil moisture content and thereby, the irrigation requirements at any place of land through sensors. These sensors will then activate sprinklers, to bring in the exact amount of water required to the zone. Such systems are already in place in California, another region in the world that’s notorious for its droughts. Farm owner Kurt Bantle has stated that due to the precision of the readings from his radio sensors of the soil’s moisture content, there are zones on his lands where crops can go as much as 10 days without water. This is another challenge for farmers, where without the knowledge of exactly how much water is needed, and the inability to risk underwatering plants, they often water well beyond the requirement.

Beyond the accuracy of water needed, and the minimisation of water waste, self-operating, and monitoring systems reduce the worry and the concern of the farmer, putting his mind at ease. Irrigation, the most important component of farming is now automated and simplified. And since crops are consistently and accurately watered, the health of the crop is better managed, producing higher crop yields.

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Of course, there are challenges to irrigation IoT, and this revolves mainly around the availability of connectivity. Cost is still a huge factor and most IoT deployments in irrigation are still confined to urban/sub-urban areas such as that of a golf course making them largely inaccessible for farmers. Looking into ways to simplify and scale down the cost of IoT connectivity could prove to be immensely beneficial for the average farmer. One of the main drivers in their decision making process is the availability of proper low cost, low power communication systems that will allow the proliferation of cheap data points that are the real game changer in predictions, forecasts and insight into farming.

Low cost, low power communication is key

Protocols such as LoRa are set up to finally solve this, allowing the connection of as many devices necessary to the Internet at very low cost, in big area, lasting years in the field. The challenge though is that this type of technology always requires an internet connection to work, and as most agricultural land is uncovered by mobile networks, extracting data remotely is impossible with traditional technologies. Satellite-based approaches are the only option and the market is providing more and more solutions that don’t require a master's degree to be installed, or a massive investment to get going.

This stands to be a benefit for irrigation systems on farmlands but IoT sensors data must be combined with meteorological insight. Darryl Lyons from Skynet Group has spent most of his life on a cattle station in Queensland:

Paddock level weather data provides the climatic conditions to calculate evapotranspiration rate which can then be combined with soil moisture data to optimise the use of irrigation.  The next level is combining plants sensors such as dendrometers to show when the plant is drawing moisture from the soil. All of these sensors can then automatically trigger IoT-enabled pumps and valves to optimise irrigation for precisely where and when the crop requires it. This is the future of yield optimisation and best use of water resources whilst Australia adjusts to changing conditions over the next decades.”

To conclude, the underlying message is simple and clear. Climate change has already affected agriculture and irrigation on a near-disastrous scale. The many different ways that technology can help farmers with the problems they face from global warming and infrequent rain falls only goes to show that technology can and will be a powerful way to overcome the challenges created by climate change.

Talk to Fleet about connecting farms to save water

Matthew Pearson