Applying world-class research to solve real-world problem
Agriculture is big business. Half of Australia’s land mass is agricultural land, which provides 85% of our domestic food supply and contributes 15% of our export earnings. The industry employs 300,000 people in production and over 1.6 million people throughout the entire food and fibre supply chain. Driven by population growth and dietary changes, the global demand for food is predicted to double in the next 50 years. To meet this demand, we will need to produce increased amounts of food and fibre. Yet climate change is further accentuating this challenge: production processes now also need to be more efficient in terms of water usage, nutrients, and physical inputs.
Digital agriculture presents a novel method to meet this global challenge, which harnesses the power of digital and information technologies in conjunction with the business of agriculture. It will bring together processes that are currently fragmented, including:
- Digital components of precision agriculture
- Data analytics
- Field robotics
- Smart sensors
- Digital logistics
- Supply chains
Digital agriculture’s ability to coalesce these processes into an integrated framework will transform our agricultural production and related supply chains.
The introduction of digital agriculture will have an enormous impact on our economy. There will be a predicted 25% increase in the gross value of production across the Australia agricultural sector; in some sectors, such as the grains industry, the increase could be as high as 51%. Consumers are increasingly demanding information on the provenance, quality and ecological footprint of their food and fibre products. Digital agriculture technologies will respond to this need and have broader social and economic benefits by embedding provenance, traceability, and customer feedback in the supply chain of commodities. This will enable growers to decommoditise their products through new marketing opportunities related to the origin and quality of their products, and the sustainability of their farming systems.
The Digital Agriculture Theme with SIA and DSI brings together researchers across the university with skills and expertise to realise the opportunity provided by digital agriculture.
Sydney Institute of Agriculture
In this project we are developing novel sensors to monitor food quality, safety, and authenticity throughout the food chain. Our current approaches include printable ink sensors for food packaging to detect gases produced by bacteria allowing timely data on food quality and ultimately reducing food waste. Other sensors used aim to monitor food in the processing environment including non-invasive real-time optical techniques of NIRS (Near Infrared Spectroscopy) and LIBS (Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy). Such approaches will allow current lab-based sample analysis to move on-line, providing significantly higher resolution of critical food attributes. The group is also working with data scientists and robotic engineers to facilitate automation of the various processing lines.
In this project funded by the GRDC we are developing a modular and scalable framework to build a digital platform that will be used by growers and advisors to nowcast plant available water (PAW) at any point in time, across paddocks and at multiple depths in the soil profile. The approach will be agnostic to the type of soil water data streams and will be able to digest these to extract the best features of all in terms of accuracy, spatial and temporal resolution to provide improved predictions of PAW. The agnostic nature of the approach means that it will be future proof in terms of being able to accommodate the next generation of sensors, remote sensing platforms and water balance modelling approaches.
Other USYD investigators included Alex McBratney, Brett Whelan, Budiman Minasny, Guy Roth, Willem Vervoort and Mario Fajardo. The project is collaboration with CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, USQ and ANU.
The aim of this project is to develop autonomous systems capable of operating continuously on farms. The goal is to alleviate labour pressures, reduce sources of variability and open up new possibilities in agriculture. Catering to the needs of individual plants or livestock is labour intensive and does not scale up to commercial operations. Currently, at a commercial scale, resources such as fertilisers, pesticides, food and medicine are allocated at inefficient paddock/herd scales. Developing autonomous systems capable of managing farms at the scale of an individual plant/animal would minimise waste, maximise the potential of the farm and reduce environmental impacts. Operating these systems remotely would also allow farmers to manage multiple distant properties while reducing their reliance on transient and unpredictable labour.
To achieve these goals, systems capable of operating in unpredictable and challenging agricultural environments will need to be developed. These systems will need to be equipped with models that can identify agriculturally significant patterns from the data and build predictive models. By equipping these systems with decision models, they will be able to act productively and autonomously on farms. To ensure these systems can operate safely in diverse rural contexts, they will also need to be equipped with models that provide a broad level of situational awareness.
Image credit: Asher Bender
Core research team
Tom Bishop is a Professor in Spatial Agricultural and Environmental Spatial Science and the Director of the Sydney Informatics Hub, a Core Research Facility at the University of Sydney. His research interests are in modelling and predicting the variation of environmental properties in space and time with an emphasis on applying this to the domains of soil, agriculture and hydrology. His main teaching is related to applied statistics, environmental science and GIS. He is an Associate Editor for the European Journal of Soil Science and Soil Research, and on the Editorial Board of Geoderma and Pedosphere. Prior to starting work at the University of Sydney in 2007 he held postdoctoral positions at the University of Florida in the USA, Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom and the University of New South Wales. He completed his PhD in Precision Agriculture in 2002 at the University of Sydney.
Professor Cullen received his bachelor's and PhD degrees from University College Dublin, Ireland. Prior to joining the University of Sydney in 2019, he was a professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He has also held academic positions at UNSW Sydney and the Technological University Dublin. He has published over 190 journal articles and is designated as a highly cited author by Clarivate Analytics for 2017 - 2020.
Professor Fariba Dehghani leads a multidisciplinary bioengineering research team comprising focused on developing technologies for nutritional food products and biomaterials, with particular emphasis on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. She was the director of the Australian Research Council for Australian Food Processing Industry in the 21st Century from 2014 - 2018, and is currently the director of Centre of Excellence in Advanced Food Enginomics in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sydney. Professor Dehghani is a distinguished researcher and was recognised by Engineers Australia as one of the nation's top 50 Engineers for innovation. She subsequently received the 2017 Award for Excellence from Aust&NZ Federation of Chemical Engineering.Following this in 2019, she has received the UNSW Alumni Award of Excellence in Engineering and the University of Sydney Vice Chancellor Award of Excellence in Supervision. She has been instrumental in building a multidisciplinary research environment that stimulates the interface and intersect of engineering, science, medicine, pharmacy and agriculture. She has established long-term collaborations within the biotech, biomed and food industries and acquired substantive funding from national and international funding agencies.
Alex McBratney holds BSc, PhD and DSc degrees in soil science from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and the DScAgr degree from the University of Sydney for research in precision agriculture. He has made major contributions to soil science and agriculture through the development of the concepts of Pedometrics, Digital Soil Mapping and Precision Agriculture.
After completing his PhD work at Rothamsted Experimental Station in the UK, Alex spent seven years with CSIRO Division of Soils in Brisbane. Alex joined the University of Sydney in 1989. He is currently Director of the Sydney Institute of Agriculture and Professor of Soil Science. He is Editor of the global soil science journal, Geoderma. He is heavily involved with the activities of the International Union of Soil Sciences and the global digital soil map project, GlobalSoilMap. In 2014 he was awarded the VV Dokuchaev medal by the International Union of Soil Sciences, which is the highest honour in the soil science discipline. Currently he is helping to develop and promote the concepts of global soil security and digitally decommoditised agriculture.
Fabio Ramos is a Professor of Robotics and Machine Learning in the School of Computer Science, University of Sydney. He received a B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in Mechatronics Engineering at University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2001 and 2003 respectively, and a Ph.D. at University of Sydney, Australia, in 2008. From 2008 to 2010 he was an ARC postdoctoral fellow and from 2012 to 2014 an ARC DECRA fellow. He has over 100 peer-reviewed publications and received numerous awards. His research focuses on statistical machine learning techniques for large-scale data fusion with applications in robotics, mining, environmental monitoring and healthcare.
View Fabio's personal site.
Salah Sukkarieh is the Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney, and is the CEO of Agerris, a new Agtech startup company from the ACFR developing autonomous robotic solutions to improve agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability. He was the Director Research and Innovation at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics from 2007-2018, where he led the strategic research and industry engagement program in the world's largest field robotics institute. He is an international expert in the research, development and commercialisation of field robotic systems and has led a number of robotics and intelligent systems R&D projects in logistics, commercial aviation, aerospace, education, environment monitoring, agriculture and mining. Salah was awarded the NSW Science and Engineering Award for Excellence in Engineering and Information and Communications Technologies in 2014, the 2017 CSIRO Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science, and the 2019 NSW Australian of the Year nominee. Salah is a Fellow of Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), and has over 500 academic and industry publications in robotics and intelligent systems.
Brett Whelan undertook a small farm management course at TAFE before completing a BScAgr (Hons) at the University of Sydney (1992). In 1995, he was involved in the establishment of the Australian Centre for Precision Agriculture (ACPA), an internationally recognised research and teaching entity within the now Faculty of Agriculture and Environment. He subsequently attained a PhD in Precision Agriculture (PA) in 1998 from the University of Sydney under the supervision of Prof. Alex McBratney. Since then, Brett has continued pioneering research in the field of PA, with the help of numerous commercial farmers, commodity research and development organisations and research colleagues. He remains a co-convener of the annual Symposium on Precision Agriculture in Australasia, first held by the ACPA in 1997, and now one of the world’s longest running national forums for developments in PA. In 2012 the ACPA evolved into the Precision Agriculture Laboratory (PA Lab) through which Brett continues to provide research, information and instruction for the wider national and international agricultural communities. A comprehensive set of PA education and training modules for the Australian grains industry is freely available at the PA Lab website. Brett is the co-author a book, published by CSIRO Publishing, exploring in detail the application of Precision Agriculture
Michael Walsh is an Associate Professor and Director of Weed Research with the University of Sydney. He grew up on a farm in Victoria before completing a BSc (Agri.) at the University of Western Australia 1985, MSc. (Agron.) at La Trobe University, Melbourne (1995) and a PhD (Agron.), University of Wyoming (1998). Michael then worked with the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative from 1999 to 2016 where he focused on the research and development of harvest weed seed control (HWSC) systems.
His efforts in the area of HWSC have led to the introduction and the Australia wide adoption of systems that target weed seed during crop harvest. Michael also researched the characterisation and management of herbicide resistance in wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) populations. Michael joined the University of Sydney in 2016 where he is responsible for leading weed research and development across GRDC’s northern cropping region.