Australian agriculture sets its sights on space – Spatial Source
Agriculture’s use of satellite imaging and connectivity will add billions to the economy, according to a new AgriFutures report.
By Sarah Adams, Bob Furbank, Luigi Renzullo, Paul Tregoning and Martin Amidy
What was the last thing you ate? Where did it come from? How often do we reflect on the processes that create the food on our plate? Imagine a sandwich made of bread, butter, lettuce and chicken. Each mouthful is a mix of produce from Australia’s broadacre farms, dairy industry, horticulture and livestock industries.
Agriculture is a large and diverse sector. Farms cover 58% of Australia’s continental land mass and contribute over $65 billion to the Australian economy.
Agriculture, including farms, fisheries and forestry, has an ambition of becoming a $100 billion industry by 2030 — a goal set by the Australian National Farmers Federation.
That growth must happen within environmental constraints. This means increasing efficiency and productivity to make better use of the land currently available for agricultural production whilst minimising impacts on water resources and biodiversity. It’s a wicked problem.
Eyes in the sky
Orbiting above the Earth are pieces of the puzzle. Satellites are already making major improvements to agriculture through remote sensing, geolocation and increased connectivity.
For example, Earth and marine sensing adds an annual value of $37 billion to agriculture in the Asia-Pacific region. Historically limited by poor resolution, recent advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence and low-earth orbit satellites, are making satellite remote sensing a viable solution to an increasing number of agricultural challenges.
Satellite remote sensing lends itself well to the large-scale nature of Australia’s broadacre crops (such as wheat, barley and canola) and extensive livestock farms. Horticulture, dairy farms and other intensive plant and livestock industries tend to have a smaller land footprint, and often are better served by drones or UAVs.
Position, precision and producers
Australian farmers were world leaders in the application of GNSS for tractor auto-steer in the mid-1990s. However, uptake of geolocation technologies has been limited to areas with reliable internet and cellular mobile coverage, as connectivity is required for precise point positioning.
Farms with augmented positioning systems can steer tractors with the fine precision needed to keep them on defined wheel tracks. This stops machines compacting soil beyond the tracks, making it easier to cultivate and improving crop yield. Recent upgrades of the geodetic datum of Australia to GDA2020 have helped in this regard.
Fully autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, pending certain legal and regulatory frameworks, thanks to recent advances in robotics and machine vision. The planned Satellite Based Augmentation System (SBAS) is expected to deliver approximately 10-cm real-time positioning accuracy across all of Australia by 2025.
SwarmFarm, a business based in central Queensland, has developed an autonomous spraying platform that uses real-time kinetic (RTK) positioning and is controlled remotely via a tablet. It has an eight-metre spray boom with optical spot spray technology that identifies weeds and spot-sprays them, rather than covering the entire field… reducing herbicide inputs by up to 95%.