In a shed near Toowoomba, researchers at the University of Southern Queensland are developing the tools and techniques they think will dominate farming practice by 2025.
The Institute for Agriculture and the Environment executive manager Kevin Norman said the University of Southern Queensland had invested $30 million in its agriculture research programs.
“There’s some really exciting things coming on … real world practical solutions that we can deliver to our farmers,” he said.
Mr Norman said the future of farming was an exciting field of study.
“Looking at the drones, the sensors, the new technology, that’s the ‘sexy’, but there’s lots of great research that we’re doing,” he said.
But Mr Norman said there were also projects looking at infrastructure, new export opportunities, using food as medicine, value chain development and climate modelling.
Drones to become as common as tractors
Mechatronic engineer Dr Cheryl McCarthy is researching the use of drones to automatically detect hot spots in crops, and will soon be one of the few people in Australia licensed to operate unmanned aerial vehicles commercially.
“At our research centre we’ve been spending many years in developing computer systems that can automatically interpret camera images,” Dr McCarthy said.
“The drone can be collecting images and then automatically interpreting them.
“Instead of going in by foot, they (the farmer) can be deploying the drone, it can be doing transects over the paddock, collecting images and automatically interpreting where there are unhealthy areas in the paddock, or where there are weed outbreaks, and presenting that information in real time to the farmer.”
Dr McCarthy said by 2025, drones would be as common on the farm as tractors.
“They offer a big time and labour saving in doing the scouting operations,” she said.
Trapping moths to prevent pest incursions
Agricultural engineer and biosecurity expert Paul Kamel traps moths in a device that allows him to photograph them under a microscope and upload the image, to help spot incursions early.
“What they (moth traps) can do is they can effectively extend the reach of the researcher or people trying to monitor incursions,” he said.
“At the moment if we use a standard moth trap, it means that a researcher is going to have to spend a lot of time travelling to remote areas to check what’s been caught in the trap in the last week or two.
“In this instance, we can give them almost real time information so they can see immediately when there’s an incursion occurring.”
Mr Kamel said the information could help stop the spread of pests and save millions of dollars in control methods.
High-tech imaging to detect crown rot resistance
Crown rot is a disease caused by fungus, which survives in the stubble of its host plant, limits water movement from the soil and causes browning of the stem.
It can be a major headache for the grains industry, causing significant yield losses, particularly in wheat crops.
Plant pathologist Dr Cassy Percy is investigating better ways of using phenotyping to learn more about resistance to the disease.
Phenotyping is a research method that involves, in simple terms, “describing how much disease the plant has”.
“In collaboration with the [National Centre for Engineering Australia], we have been looking at developing a phenotyping unit and using the imaging and sensing technologies that the NCEA have available here,” Dr Percy said.
“It [involves] mounting several cameras… we are doing that on the ground and taking thousands and thousands of images out in the fields.
“That will help us determine whether we can identify wavelengths that will differentiate between the diseased and resistant plants.”
Turning food waste into something useful
Food expert Lindsay Brown has been investigating the potential of recycling food waste.
He has begun clinical trials to look at how the waste products of foods such as wine can be utilised, and made into functional foods which could improve health.
“For example, when we make red wine most of the stuff gets thrown out [and] gets used as compost,” Mr Brown said.
“There must be better ways of doing this; is it possible to turn this into a functional food?”
One functional food which has proven to be a success is purple carrot juice.
Mr Brown said one glass a day had significant health benefits.
“It would prevent you getting obese, it would probably reduce your blood pressure if it’s high, and probably change the glucose metabolism, trying to prevent diabetes,” he said.
“It will relieve pain in joints and arthritis from coming on.”
Plums, choke berries, purple maize, seaweed and grapefruit also have significant dietary benefits.
Driverless tractors are the future
Precision agriculture expert Troy Jensen has been developing technology which can measure and quantify the spatial capacity of farms in terms of things like fertiliser use.
However, to do so requires advanced technology such as auto-steer tractors, which Mr Jensen said already existed.
But farm equipment could be even more advanced in the future.
“The idea behind fully autonomous, driverless tractors is a possibility,” Mr Jensen said.
“You still need that human interface, [and] there might be ways of a person being in one tractor controlling a fleet.
“You could be having cameras on board, sensors that are looking at the crop as you’re plowing or spraying weeds differentially.”
(Source – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-27/drones-driverless-tractor-farming-in-2025/6888352)