Jan 252016

For the developing world, broadband and mobile communications are helping

In Myanmar, the opening of the economy has meant accessible telecommunications for the nation’s farmers reports The Atlantic.

At the same time, Indian Railway’s Telecommunications arm RailTel is opening its fibre network to the public, starting with Wi-Fi at major stations.

What is notable in both cases is the role of Facebook. In India, Facebook’s project to offer free broadband access across the nation is meeting some resistance and it’s probably no coincidence Indian Railway’s WiFi project is being run as partnership with Google.

In Myanmar on the other hand, Facebook and Snapchat are the go to destination for rural communities, it will be interesting to watch how this plays out as farmers start to use the social media service for price discovery and finding new markets – as Tencent Chairman SY Lau last year claimed was happening with Chinese communities.

One of the promises of making the Internet available to the general public was that it would enable the world to become connected, thirty years later we may be seeing the results.

Aug 122015

As we gather more data, the opportunities to apply it become wider. A good example of this is Seer Insights, a South Australian company started by pair of university students that calculates the likely grape yields for vineyards.

Seer Insights’ product Grapebrain is made up of two components, a mobile app that the farmer uses to count the grape clusters on the vines and then a cloud service that analyses the data and produces web based reports for the farmers.

The current methods are notoriously unreliable with Seer Insights estimating mistakes cost the Australian viticulture industry $200 million a year as harvests are miscalculated resulting in either rotting fruit or wasted contractor fees.

Born in an elevator

Seer’s founders, Harry Lucas and Liam Ellul, started the business after a chance meeting on their university campus. “We started off doing this after being stuck in a lift together,” remembers Liam. “Originally we were looking at the hyper-spectrum imaging for broadacre farming but when we started looking at the problems we ended up talking to wine organisations about this.”

“The technology predicts how many grapes will be coming off the vineyards at the end of the season to enable people to sort out their finances,” Harry says. “The growth process grapes go through is difficult to model so we use machine learning to do that.”

For both the founders having an off the shelf product, in this case Microsoft’s machine learning tools, to run the data analysis made it relatively easy to launch the product.

As a winner of Microsoft’s Tech eChallenge, the startup has won a trip to the United States as well as being profiled by the company as a machine learning case study.

Over time as these tools become more accessible to small companies we’ll see more businesses accessing machine learning services to enhance their operations.

As companies face the waves of data flowing into their businesses over the next decade, it will be those who manage it well and gather valuable insights from their information that will be the winners.

Jul 212015

Can unmanned aircraft solve Australia’s feral animal problem? Startup Ninox Robotics believes sending military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the country’s outback can help farmers control pests such as wild dogs and pigs on their sprawling properties.

“Australian landholders and managers have been struggling against the problem of invasive pest species for decades, including feral dogs, pigs, deer and rabbits,” says the co-founder and CEO of privately owned Ninox, Marcus Elrich.

Government steps in

Regulatory requirements on commercial drones such as their only being allowed for line of sight operations during daylight hours and below 400m has limited the deployment of UAVs in large scale agricultural applications, particularly with feral animals that tend to come out at night.

Ninox’s drones, supplied and operated by Israeli UAV supplier Bluebird, are licensed to operate in the dark and up to 50km from their base. They also have a detachable head that allows operators to switch cameras for different operations, allowing for normal cameras during daytime and infrared at night.

The trial, being conducted by Ninox Robotics, is the most ambitious civilian drone trial ever conducted in Australian airspace. It utilises state of the art UAVs with advanced real time thermal imaging capabilities to detect invasive pests in rural areas.

Currently Ninox only has approval from the Australian Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA) to run three-week trials at selected sites in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Services to farmers

Should the trials be successful and Ninox obtain a wider operating license from CASA, Elrich is looking at offering the service to farmers, government agencies and utility companies for operations ranging from pest control to asset and stock management along with search and rescue roles for emergency services.

While the use of military drones is substantially more expensive than commercial drones with the costs currently around $3,000 per flight, Elrich believes the service is competitive with manned helicopter operations that many properties in rural Australia require.

Should the drones be successful on Australia’s sprawling farms, it’s going to be another example of how the current wave of technologies is further automating agriculture. There’s a lot more labour to be saved with these devices.

At present Elrich and Ninox see pest management as the initial application, but there’s many other ways farmers can be using robot technologies.

Apr 032015

While we focus on how technology is changing the workplace and displacing jobs, we often overlook how it affects animals as well.

A video posted by Irish farmer Paul Brennan shows how a drone can be used to herd sheep, putting the humble sheepdog out of work.

The possibilities in using drones on farms are endless, they free farmers up to do substantially more tasks and if they’re equipped with sensors to communicate with stock, crops or farm infrastructure they can be pulling in more information about the property.

For the poor sheepdog this isn’t the first time a farm animal has been displaced. Until the arrival of the steam engine and then farm tractor horses had been an essential part of agriculture for thousands of years.

But while news isn’t good for sheepdogs not all animals are intimidated by drones as one unfortunate owner found out when he decided to harass a mob a kangaroos.

Mar 272015
treating your customers like milk cows is not a recipe for success

In thirty years ‘cultured meat’ will be commonplace and it will disrupt the cattle market Professor Mark Post warned the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association earlier this week.

Artificial, or ‘cultured’, meat is a dramatic change for the food industries and it promises, or threatens, to radically transform the cattle grazing business.

This is another example of an industry that wasn’t expected to be affected by change facing a radical transformation. It shows again few of us are immune from change.

Dec 222014
Stagecoaches were dominant in the 19th Century but failed when technology changed

We aren’t prepared for the changes technology is bringing our society warns Vivek Wadhwa in Our future of abundance—and joblessness.

Vivek makes the important point that in the near future many of the jobs we take for granted today will be replaced by machines, this is similar to the warning from Andrew McAfee that a wave of innovation is going to overrun businesses over the next two years.

That innovation is going to cause massive disruption; as Vivek notes we’re going to see the loss of jobs in occupations as diverse as taxi drivers, farmers and – probably the most underestimated of all affected occupations – managers.

Of course this is not first time we’ve seen massive changes to our economy and over the last century farming has gone from one of the most labour intensive industries to one of the most automated.

The automation that changed farming though created millions of new jobs; today’s retail and food industries employ far more people than agriculture did a century ago and most of those jobs were made possible by the same technologies that reduces the need for farm workers.

Vivek acknowledges this in quoting Ray Kurzweil in that jobs are lost only if we look narrowly at  the industries and communities affected.

Automation always eliminates more jobs than it creates if you only look at the circumstances narrowly surrounding the automation.  That’s what the Luddites saw in the early nineteenth century in the textile industry in England.  The new jobs came from increased prosperity and new industries that were not seen.

What we have to acknowledge though is the transition to a new economy won’t be painless and that millions of people will be dislocated and some communities will cease to exist – just as the bulk of the developed world’s populations moved from rural villages to industrial cities during the Twentieth Century.

The truth is we don’t know how that process is going to evolve; then again, neither did our forebears a hundred years ago.

A hundred years ago we were at the beginning of an age of abundant energy and that changed society beyond recognition in the course of the century, at the end of this century of abundance our society will be very different again.

Dec 062014

One of the speakers at the recent Economist World in 2015 event in Sydney was National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson who described the challenges facing the world’s agriculture industry.

Much of Richardson’s presentation was taken from his series of photographs featuring farmers with their soil and National Geographic’s Feeding Nine Billion People feature.

A striking comment Richardson made in his presentation was how a poor rice farmer in South Asia is actually able to feed from people from their small landholding than a US broadacre farmer. This speaks volumes about how we’ve organised our food supply chains and raises questions on how sustainable our practices are.

In Agriculture, as in many other fields of our life today, we’re looking at major changes to the way we organise production and distribute goods. Richardson’s presentations are well worth considering in how the western world maintains it’s own standards of living while the rest of the planet looks at how it improves their’s.

Despite being essential to our very lives, the quality and availability of arable soil is one of the most neglected aspects of our global development. Jim Richardson’s photos remind us of its importance.