ON a recent trip to the United States in his role as chairman of CBH, Wally Newman was able to use his iPad to check the water level in a tank on a bore and windmill located in the back paddock of his Newdegate farm.
Being able to remotely monitor his livestock and water infrastructure is something that Mr Newman has been working towards for 20 years.
Always keen to keep ahead of the technological trend – in 1958 as a boy still at primary school, he helped his father construct the first party line telephones and was one of the first farmers in WA to install two-way radios – Mr Newman has plans to install 25 cameras or more on his property and is in the process of setting up monitors that will send alerts when water tanks or troughs are low or when feed is getting down in the 30 lick feeders he has scattered across the property.
“I have been keen to do something like this for 20 years but it has been hard to find anyone in WA that can install this technology on a farm in Newdegate,” Mr Newman said.
“I was at the Wagin Woolorama last year and I got talking to Ben Watts, who was there working for AWI (Australian Wool Innovation), and he had actually implemented the exact technology I was looking for on his own properties in New South Wales.
“He put me in touch with his provider over there, Dan Winson, who specialises in setting up network coverage for properties through his company Agrinet.”
While installing a Wi-Fi network that could drive his cameras and monitors was one thing, a missing piece of the puzzle was finding someone in WA that was computer savvy enough to implement the camera technology onto Mr Newman’s farm.
This involved setting up servers and base stations that would enable the coverage and connectivity required to run the cameras and monitors.
It was through sheer luck that Mr Newman happened upon Olaf Schubert, a semi-retired grey nomad and a computer systems analyst/technician from Queensland who just happened to be holidaying in WA.
“I have a mate, Tony Gorman, who lives on a property near Albany and just opposite his gate is a truck bay and this truck pulled in there one day and it was on an eight-tonne chassis, as high as a triple decker and all closed in, “ Mr Newman said.
“Tony couldn’t work out what it was used for and curiosity got the better of him so he wandered across and asked ‘what have you got in the back mate?’.
“It turned out it was Olaf and it was his mobile home that he had converted from a double decker dragster carrier.
“He told Tony he was looking for a caravan park and Tony said the truck was too big to get into any parks around Albany, so he offered Olaf to park up at his place.
“Olaf sorted Tony’s computer system out and as he and his wife Janice were later heading to Wave Rock, Tony pointed him our way and said to stay here and they came to our farm.
“I ran it past Olaf about my plan for the camera network and it turned out he had installed cameras and developed computer programs for meatworks previously on the east coast of Australia.
“He had put cameras and monitors in everything from the lockers to the packing rooms and wrote the control systems for them.
“He was a really hands-on, practical guy and when I asked him about installing my cameras he agreed and we are now about halfway through the process.”
Mr Schubert’s role is to project manage, do the installation testing and write the code that will allow Mr Newman to manage all the devices from his mobile phone or iPad.
Through Mr Winson’s technology and Mr Schubert’s hands-on work, most of the Newman property is now covered by Wi-Fi which is running at 5.8 megahertz and it is through this network that the cameras are run.
The monitoring and alerts will use LoRa technology, which is low frequency, low battery and long range wireless technology.
This technology enables the monitors to work on small batteries and send alerts and messages for whatever time period you program them.
Mr Schubert is working closely with SimplyCity a Perth-based organisation that designs and makes special LoRa devices as well as providing off the shelf solutions.
The end result will be a total coverage of 25 cameras and a series of monitors that will be attached to water troughs, water tanks, lick feeders, vehicles and gates that will relay alerts when these devices register they are outside of their set parameters.
“They run on a low frequency, which is 0.7 to 0.9 megahertz and with our internal intranet running at 5G, the speed is better than anything else around at the moment,” Mr Newman said.
While there is a significant cost in setting up the Wi-Fi network that is the backbone of the overall system, Wally said it would pay for itself in no time.
“Just checking the lick feeders alone could be a 40-50 kilometre round trip and that run is made quite often through summer and autumn, so there is a big saving on time and fuel right there,” he said.
“Once everything is in place, we will be able to go to a GPS map and touch it and straight away you will see how full a particular feeder is in millimetres.
“We will put in a high and low point that we want and as soon as it hits that low point you will get an alert on your phone or iPad.
“A morning report will provide a list of alerts for all devices including low feed bins, low batteries in devices or solar panels, gates that have been left open when they should be shut, water levels and water flow that may be too low or pumps stopped when they should be working or water not flowing through pipes when it should.
“One of our farms is the only one in the district that has a bore on it and that supplies the whole farm.
“We have two tanks running off it and while we try and check the sheep physically once a week, in summer if something happens and the sheep knock a trough off and water is running away you may not know for a couple of days and you can lose a lot of water and livestock.
“Now we have a meter with an alarm on it that reads what level those tanks are at and I also have a camera there that I can see the water in the tank and if the windmill is working or not in the one camera angle, so I will know straight away if something has happened and can get out there and fix it.
“These monitors are amazing, with the cameras you need solar panels and so on to run them, but the monitors run off this LoRa technology and all you need is a little battery in them.
“You can program them to send a message once a week or once a second, whatever you require.
“Where we have pipelines and water troughs we will have monitors on those lines and it will send back the amount of litre flow in them once or twice a day or once a week depending on what you program it for.”
Mr Newman is particularly pleased with a PTZ camera supplied by Mr Winson that can take in a full 360-degree view of his property and has exceptional 48 times zoom capabilities which can see images up to 20 kilometres away.
It is ideal for checking many things including fires anywhere in the district while on holidays down the coast.
However he is more excited about the potential for the prototype PTZ that is mobile with a high quality zoom supplied by Mr Winson.
“With Dan, we built a test camera that can be moved with a mob of sheep, so wherever the sheep go this camera can go, we can clearly see all the sheep in the paddock we are monitoring as well as the mob in the adjacent paddock over a kilometre from the camera that we were not officially monitoring,” he said.
“You can look at the sheep feeder or zoom right up on the water supply and look around the paddock wherever you want.
“The farm is spread over 40km and you can keep an eye on all of it through this camera.
“When you are not using it, the camera goes to sleep so its battery life is exceptional because it is not running all the time.
“It is virtual farming just sitting in your office.”
While Mr Newman uses the term “virtual farming” Mr Schubert said he would call it “proactive informative farm management” which not only is cost and labour saving but it also pre-empts issues with early intervention eliminating costly solutions of eventual major dramas.
It may be armchair farming but it is highly effective.
A tower that Mr Newman built many years ago to try and get decent television reception and was then later used for the now disused two-way system has also come in handy.
“I couldn’t get any reception on the TV out here, so I built this 30 metre tower to put the aerial on,” he said.
“We also had the two-ways running off it, we don’t need it for either now but it has come in handy to set up our connectivity network.
“It has four microwave dishes on it and they pump out to the base stations which radiate the signal across the farm so we have virtual Wi-Fi across the whole property at a rate of 5G.”
For Mr Newman the whole exercise is a no-brainer.
“It is the future of agriculture and you need to be involved in it,” he said.
“I am always looking for an advantage and the next big advantage will be in fast connectivity.
“I remember the Department of Agriculture did a presentation to the CBH board a few years ago and said Australian agriculture could see a 16 per cent productivity gain from connectivity-related developments which includes robotic machinery and so on.
“That equates to about $1 billion a year in WA alone.
“You compare it to something like genetics, which provides a 0.5pc productivity gain and I think we are looking at the biggest potential leap in agriculture, bar none.
“Data transmission is the fastest growing demand we all have and it’s ever increasing by volume every day and is a major problem particularly in remote areas with poor connectivity.
“If we’re not on the front foot in this field and our competitors are, we are going to be left a long way behind in their dust with huge ramifications for our industries and our communities.”