Telstra sees its future in agriculture

Dr Bradlow
Dr Bradlow

Telstra is planning a move into the booming Australian agricultural arena as part of its transformation from a pure telecommunications company into broader technology player. Source: The Australian

Telstra chief scientist Hugh Bradlow said the new ven

ture would include hi-tech on-farm ideas and practical solutions for improving the efficiency and productivity of modern farming, rather than just focus on its traditional expertise of providing mobile phone and data services for rural and regional Australia.

Included in its farm packages, not yet formalised in any commercial arrangement, are plans to sell farmers new technology such as internet-linked soil sensors, drones and even small field robots to encourage the greater adoption of data-based analytical decision-making and labour-saving devices.

Australian agriculture is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the national economy, with predictions the $60 billion of farm produce coming off the nation’s 135,000 farms each year could be almost doubled within 15 years.

Telstra is keen to grab a slice of the growing action, as the ideas of internet and data-based smart farming, precision agriculture, driverless tractors, drones, field robots and mobilephone linked irrigation systems and field sensors are quickly adopted by the best and smartest farmers.

Dr Bradlow said agriculture was ideally suited to benefit from using the “Internet of Things” — technology and equipment such as small soil sensors, irrigation systems, tractors, drones and other farm machinery connected by low-level usage of mobile phone networks — to generate vast amounts of data.

By helping farmers make better decisions through automatic data analysis — rather than many being swamped and befuddled with too much information, as they are now — Telstra believes it can offer valuable assistance to rural producers.

It also has the network capacity and the cloud storage space to do so, although the data generated and stored would still be owned by each farmer.

Dr Bradlow said many leading farmers already made excellent use of their collected data combined with satellite information on crop growth and weather to manage their farms.

Some industries, such as the horticultural sector, are far advanced in the use of small robots that spray weeds and harvest fruit.

“But we know there is a huge disparity between the best and worst farmers in Australia and between types of agriculture, and the level of technology they use,” Dr Bradlow said.

“This is democratising technology; every farmer will be able to afford and use this technology for whatever their output is, to lower their input costs, produce more goods and tailor what they produce to their customers’ needs.”

Dr Bradlow said the beauty of Telstra’s involvement in this new technology field —previously dominated by specialised agronomists or big data collectors such as John Deere and Monsanto — is that it uses and extends existing mobile technology.

Even in regional areas where mobile phone range is limited to the homestead paddocks, devices such as IoT soil sensors with the capacity to send soil moisture information back once a day to a central receiver, only require low mobile coverage. This can extend the effective data network out to the farm’s back paddocks, allowing the intelligent farming systems to be used twice the distance from a mobile tower as current voice coverage.

Dr Bradlow said the key to Telstra’s ultimate success will rest with its development of analytical programs that collate and interpret masses of data from many IoT devices and signals, and guide the farmer to the best decision.

Research has found most farmers make six to 10 key decisions every year that have enormous bearing on their annual production, such as what crop to plant in which paddock, when to irrigate, how much fertiliser to use and when to harvest.

If each of these decisions could be made a minimal 2%-3% better or in a more timely way using data analysis, the potential exists for each farmer to boost their food productivity by 15%-20% each year.

The use and cost of water, chemicals and fertilisers, even land, could also be reduced with targeted applications suited to each tree in an orchard or even plant in a wheat field.

“Automation and better analysis using IoT devices is the next stage forward for advanced precision agriculture; farmers will no longer be swamped with data and the key management decisions will almost be made for them,” Dr Bradlow predicts.