PRECISION Agriculture is about to take the next step and see robots planting, spraying and harvesting crops… or is it?
This is one of the questions Gilgandra, NSW, grain grower James Hassall was keen to answer, as part of a Nuffield Australia Farming Scholarship sponsored by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).
Over the past 12 months James has spent a significant amount of time in Europe and America, discovering what is actually possible with current computer technology and how it might be adapted to Australian conditions.
“So much of Precision Agriculture is driven by global positioning systems, or GPS, that understanding developments in that area was a key part of the trip,” James said.
“A great deal of effort is going into increasing the accuracy of GPS and to set up independent testing for the accuracy of auto-steer vehicles. In the not-too-distant future, the location of vehicles could be available in real time over the internet.”
This leads to the question of what other information could be available at the same time, and James says agricultural equipment manufacturers have pledged to standardise their electronic communication systems.
“This means complete compatibility regardless of the brand of tractor, auto-steer software or variable rate air seeder,” James said.
“It’s generally accepted that implementation should happen within five years, and once it does it should be relatively simple to send all the data together via the internet.”
Advances in spray technology are promising to dramatically cut input costs, too.
“In Denmark, they are in the early stages of developing a system which uses a commercial bubble jet printer to ‘print’ chemical directly onto the leaves of weeds.
“They are getting effective control using only 1-5 per cent of the label rate, which makes a big difference to the cost, even compared to Weedseeker technology.
"It also means, potentially, the end of spray drift.
“On top of that, though, is the concept of cameras and a video detection system that can identify the species and match the application rate to the weed.”
James says some of the automation techniques being investigated by the European Union’s Future Farm research project make the mind boggle with opportunity, if you can put them all together.
“Imagine a small, solar powered device about the size of a ride-on lawnmower to avoid compaction issues,” James said.
“When fitted with a microspray unit, it could spend all summer searching for, monitoring and controlling weeds.
"As well, it could map the species and densities and send them to the office computer and your mobile phone.
“It could send you a text when it ran out of chemical, which wouldn’t be often using the Danish technique, and then meet you at the gate."
Having finished his Nuffield scholarship, James is keen to continue learning about Precision Agriculture and how to get some of these ideas off the ground in Australia.
He will also be making presentations to events for both Nuffield and GRDC over coming months to share his knowledge.
More information about James’ trip will shortly be available on the ‘reports’ section of the website: www.nuffield.com.au