IoT, agritech under spotlight with new Kiwi pilots

Published on the 01/02/2019 | Written by Heather Wright

Kowhai farm agritech IoT trials

Environmental benefits drive collaboration on agritech research…

New Zealand agritech is in the spotlight again with an internet of things farming trial now underway and the country about to spearhead a new global agritech initiative.

The local trial is aiming to demonstrate that better use of digital technologies will enable Kiwi primary sector businesses to be more productive and competitive, while the global trials will look at nutrients and fertilisers as part of a study utilising New Zealand’s biotech R&D community.

The IoT tech trial is ongoing at Lincoln University’s arable farming research facility Kowhai Farm and sees a range of sensors deployed, including a nitrate sensor in a bore to monitor the quality of the water table, along with sensors for soil moisture, air quality, climate and plant health. Control sensors are also being trialled to open and close gates and water valves, and some the farm vehicles.

“2019 could be the tipping point for New Zealand and the farming export sector.”

Kriv Naicker, NZ IoT Alliance executive director, told iStart subsequent phases will have a look at more sensors, including ones from Spark and KotahiNet which will be included in the next phase of the pilot.

“One of the areas arable farmers are struggling with is around precision agriculture. They’ve got collection methods for forecasting a lot of their activities, but the data collection is constrained at the moment by existing legacy collection methods.

“IoT can give them another layer of granularity in terms of the richness of the data from advanced sensors. These can give farmers a really good overlay of data onto their current data sets for decision making.”

The trial is a New Zealand IoT Alliance pilot in collaboration with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and its ‘Business Uptake of ICT’ programme, which identified industry sectors requiring stimulus from a technology awareness and adoption perspective.

Naicker says the arable farming community is lagging behind other areas such as dairy, horticultural, viticulture, and orchards in technology uptake.

While the sector is a small player in the New Zealand market, Naicker says it underpins many other agricultural activities, supporting them through providing feed (primarily poultry and pork production).

Naicker says the trial, which will run for a year, ‘is around understanding what the arable farmers need to do to help precision agriculture improve from a data collection, data analytics and data intelligence perspective’.

“Worldwide, the adoption and implementation of precision agriculture has become possible because of the development of sophisticated sensors, robots and sensor networks combined with procedures to link mapped variables to appropriate farming management actions,” he says.

“Sensors, either wired or wireless, integrated into an IoT system gather essential data needed for cost effective and sustainable farm management.

“The pilot is showcasing the technology needed for precision agriculture methods and techniques in a hands-on pilot demonstration that will be monitored and evaluated by the Foundation for Arable Research.

“The trial aims to get farmers to see the value in deploying technology which is rapidly evolving and we feel that 2019 could be the tipping point for New Zealand and the farming export sector,” Naicker says.

Meanwhile, the global initiative is a three year programme designed to address some of the challenges around use of nutrients and is the first initiative to launch from AgritechNZ’s partnership with Farm 2050, signed last August.

Peter Wren-Hilton, AgritechNZ chief executive, says other initiatives will be launched over the coming years, and he hopes New Zealand will become a testbed for agritech trials globally.

Wren-Hilton says the initial project will look at the structure of some of the nutrients and fertilisers used.

“We’re hoping to make better use of biotechnology. There are other types of areas, but I think bio is going to be a very interesting area. We’ll be working very closely with BiotechNZ to see how we can leverage some of the skills and applications BioTech might be able to produce to improve the impact of nutrients in terms of efficiency for plants and grasslands but also reducing the impact of run off,” he says.

“Part of the initiative is to not only develop new alternatives but to implement field trials to test how effective these new alternatives are. That’s also a critical part of the initiative – to get better measurements of run off.”

The measurement stage will see AgritechNZ harnessing technologies including internet of things sensors to measure impact and run off.

“About 50 percent of the application of nutrients and fertiliser is effective in the sense that it is utilised by targeted crops and fields where applied,” Wren-Hilton says. “The balance is transmitted into the water table and from there often into streams, rivers, estuary systems with all the associated negative environmental impact.

The initiative is looking at potentially disruptive technologies which could improve the type of nutrients and fertilisers used to be more effective in their impact on grassland and crops, while negating some of the environmental impacts.

“From a farmer perspective it could both improve the quality of application of the fertiliser and nutrients and reduce input costs if we’re able to target them more effectively, while also providing the benefit of reduced impact on the environment, which in New Zealand is a critical issue.”

The project will target pastoral farming.

“We plan to engage with New Zealand’s major existing players in this space, as well as early stage agritech companies seeking to address these critical issues.

“There is also great science often locked up in our universities and crown research institutes. Leveraging these combined assets can help New Zealand’s agritech sector take a global lead in improving both plant absorption efficiency, as well as reducing environmental impact through the smarter use of nutrients.”

Wren-Hilton says Agritech NZ is looking at working with Ireland on the project, providing dual-hemisphere trials and enabling products to be tested twice a year, rather than just during the Southern Hemisphere growing season.

More details about the trials will be unveiled in February with the release of a white paper outlining the objectives and processes, with the initiative expected to launch in three to four month with ‘some fairly significant announcements to be made at Fieldays in June’.

“We’re not just talking to companies in New Zealand. There are a number of global businesses that want to engage and we are talking to some of the world’s largest agribusinesses like Bayer, Syngenta and Corteva.”

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