THE rate of change in the agriculture industry, and more specifically, in the technology that supports primary producers, is astounding.
As world agriculture production continues to increase at a rapid rate to sustain a growing population, the ag-tech industry is tipped to be Australia's next $100 billion industry, while global food demand is forecast to increase 60 per cent by 2060.
Critical to the agriculture industry's prosperity in the coming decades is technological innovation - cloud analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), drones, big data and autonomous vehicles.
But is the future of farming already here?
And how can some of these technologies be successfully implemented within the existing infrastructure of your farm?
This years' TECHSPO conference at Wagin on Wednesday, August 7 and Katanning on Thursday, August 8, will be deep-diving into all aspects of ag-tech for both livestock and crop producers, demonstrating the practical and profitable applications of a broad spectrum of technologies, as well as showcasing a world-class line up of speakers specialising in a myriad farming innovations.
Included in TECHSPO's impressive line-up is Jacquie Gabb, head of Agriculture and National Innovation lead from NTT DATA Business Solutions.
Ms Gabb reiterated that ag-tech innovation should not replace the human factor in farming, but simply improve farm productivity.
"NTT DATA will be talking about how we see the use of technology to complement and improve efficiency for the human," Ms Gabb said.
"Where can computers, sensors, drones, artificial intelligence be used to free human time?
"Does this mean rise of the machines?
"Is it as scary as it sounds?
"Not as we see it - leveraging technology and artificial intelligence will help to augment a dwindling workforce, reduce costs and improve efficiency."
There is no doubt that technology is already improving the way farmers produce, from the basic finance management applications through to farm management technologies, including monitoring livestock movements, trading, reporting, forward planning and feeding programs.
New technologies allow producers to track their livestock and improve the lifetime traceability.
As Australian agriculture properties cover vast hectares of land, the basic checks, stock monitoring and everyday up-keep of these properties are both time consuming and costly.
But as the industry transforms, new technologies are allowing farmers to access their data, control field machinery and monitor the health and wellbeing of their livestock from the palm of their hand.
Paving the way with new technology in this area is Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), which has been undertaking a recent project to develop smart tags that enable woolgrowers to monitor and assess their stock in real time from any location.
They have further advanced this technology to allow the smart tags to undertake behaviour analysis of stock, providing woolgrowers with real-time alerts when a welfare issue arises with one or a number of their animals.
The tags could be used for several purposes, such as monitoring the location and movement of individual sheep and mobs in the flock and the distribution of the sheep within the paddock.
This would be useful information if you want to know, for example, where and when the sheep prefer to graze, drink and shelter, or simply to know where you can locate the sheep.
The tags have already proved to be very useful for monitoring the interactions between animals for mothering up.
In addition to these direct applications, smart tags could be used for several research and data analysis purposes to help woolgrowers optimise their flock's productivity - for example, in relation to flystrike management, wild dog alerts, grazing optimisation, health alerts and reproduction optimisation.
Being equipped with this comprehensive data enables woolgrowers to make data informed decisions.
Unlike passive RFID tags which are primarily used for identification, AWI's smart tags allow for the continuous live streaming of data from activity, movement and proximity of the sheep.
These tags will allow woolgrowers to make data-driven management decisions through the analysis of both live and historical data.
In the future, this technology will give woolgrowers the power to intervene more quickly, reducing wastage in management and facilitating greater farm efficiency and profit.
In a demonstration utilising 20 sheep on TECHSPO's second day, AWI will be able to showcase location detection, activity and movement in real-time, as well as streaming and recording of basic behaviour, such as walking, grazing and standing.
It will also provide information about the relation between ewes and lambs (mothering up).
Farmers will have the unique opportunity to understand the practical applications of this technology for their farms and their livestock during this hands-on demonstration.
AWI will also be showcasing its new WoolQ portal, specifically designed for woolgrowers, to TECHSPO delegates.
The digital platform facilitates online collaboration between the woolgrower, classer, broker and buyer and the digitalisation of this process allows for a wide range of rich information to be accessed anytime and anywhere via desktop or mobile app.
Where no Wi-Fi or internet connection exists, the WoolQ app will allow users to access, record and store critical information to be uploaded automatically when internet connection is available.
The platform supports the growing and selling cycle across all key stages: planning, shearing, testing and appraising, analysing, selling and reviewing.
The first area of WoolQ to launch was eSpeci, an electronic version of the paper speci that allows users to capture, share and store clip details digitally.
An alternative to the current paper speci, the WoolQ eSpeci allows woolgrowers and wool classers to accurately and efficiently capture in-shed clip data at the time of shearing.
Once the WoolQ eSpeci is complete, it can be sent electronically to the broker or shared with any other contact for visibility, traceability and collaboration.
"Western Australia is well known for its innovative farmers," said Marius Cuming, AWI.
"WA woolgrowers will have the opportunity to come to TECHSPO and see what AWI is doing in the digital space in areas such as tagging and WoolQ and we look forward to continuing to provide tools to woolgrowers that support and strengthen both farmers and the industry."
In addition to traceability and platform innovations, drones are becoming more popular and provide huge benefit and ever growing potential for the agricultural industry.
Using both piloted and automated drone technology, coupled with AI capabilities, farmers have a unique advantage by being able to monitor - in real time - crop health, livestock movements, quickly identify and react to threats to livestock or crops, or even automate the most menial tasks such as weed spraying, water level monitoring or breaks in perimeter fencing.
In a time of ever-extreme climates, one such practical application of drones is for crop monitoring to combat drought and other environmental factors.
3D imaging from drones can be used to predict soil quality through analysis and optimise seed planting schedules.
After planting, drone-driven soil analysis provides data for both irrigation and nitrogen-level management.
From an efficiency perspective, various start-ups have created drone-planting systems that achieve an uptake rate of 75pc and decrease planting costs by 85pc.
These systems shoot pods with seeds and plant nutrients into the soil, providing the plant all the nutrients necessary to sustain life.
AI technology and camera guidance is now in development for identifying and removing weeds without human intervention.
In some remarkable results, spraying and weeding robots have reduced agrochemical use by an incredible 90pc in some instances.
Several of these robots will be on show at this years' TECHSPO, such as the SwarmBot by SwarmFarm Robotics and a working prototype designed by up-and-coming agricultural robotics company, thingc Robotics.
The conference aims to demonstrate the capability and profitability of utilising such technologies and for growers to take a pragmatic approach to implementation on working farms.
SwarmFarm Robotics chief executive officer Andrew Bate echoed this sentiment.
"We pride ourselves on our deployment of real robots, working for real farmers, out in the field," Mr Bate said.
Additionally, machinery manufacturers Agrifac will be showing its new camera sprayer which recognises weeds in crops using built-in AI software, allowing precision spraying of weeds and nothing else.
The different algorithms in Agrifac's new sprayer are developed with farmers' input, ensuring that the sprayer continues to evolve to improve efficiency, increase productivity and reduce chemical usage.
This highlights one of the key benefits of AI technology, particularly for the agricultural sector where machinery is often very costly - as the system learns about your specific circumstance, the machinery itself increases in both value and efficiency, as opposed to traditional machinery which is primarily a depreciating asset.
One of the projects global innovator NTT DATA has been focused on is how to connect farmers to an overall agriculture platform.
The project explores the use of the FarmBot Network as a holistic IoT Framework connecting software and robotics to farms and will be one of the topics unpacked during Ms Gabb's breakout session at the conference.
The FarmBot Network is a collaborative project between NTT DATA and NTT DATA partner intelligence and the concept was created as a solution to sustainable food production in times of growing food insecurity.
FarmBots enables precise sowing, watering and fertilising, according to each plant.
This allows farmers to grow a diverse crop, which in turn encourages biodiversity and a much higher resilience to pests and disease.
Previously, such crops would be very labour intensive, but with automation and AI technology that detects and eliminates weeds, diverse crops require much less work.
This polyculture method has been shown to have many advantages over a monocropping method.
There is no doubt that the rise of machine learning allows for much more advanced analytics, which in turn will enable data mining for opportunities such as trends forecasting to predict which traits and genes are ideal best for crop production.
Ms Gabb is optimistic about the future of a data-focused industry.
"We see this as enabling farmers to gather and access more data than ever before in a safe, efficient manner, leveraging the use of technology," she said.
"And not only to gather the data, but to be able to present this in a useable format for farmers to consume, understand and be able to take actions."
One thing is certain, the growth of the agricultural robotics industry is both rapid and transformative.
By 2024 robots are forecast to navigate the farm to the tune of an estimated $5.7 billion ag-bot industry, five times the market size in 2016.
It's apparent that Australian ag-tech entrepreneurs and investors now have an extremely valuable opportunity to develop technologies that make a real difference to the economy's bottom line, whilst also helping rural Australia realise the economic benefits of the digital technology revolution.
Australia has diverse climates and world-class research.
Solutions and products developed here will not only directly help Australian farmers, they can also be exported to the world.
TECHSPO will be showcasing the depth and breadth of the Australian ag-tech industry, as well as helping industry professionals and farmers understand how the applications of these technologies will directly affect farm profitability and efficiency in an increasingly challenging operating environment.
Tickets are selling quickly and there are strictly no door sales.
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