Trials show automated irrigation can save farmers time, sweat and energy costs

Posted 11 September 2017

Automated irrigationTrials of automatic furrow irrigation systems on three North Queensland properties are saving busy farmers time and money.

The automated irrigation system was developed by the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture with funding from Sugar Research Australia, and was rolled out across properties in the Burdekin Delta last year. 

“Automation allows growers to optimise water use and reduce pumping energy costs,” said University of Southern Queensland’s Malcolm Gillies, who developed the system following consultation with property owners. 

“It allows growers to monitor, control and manage their irrigation systems remotely with greater precision and reduced labour requirements.”

Using a smartphone or laptop, farmers can interface with sensors via radio signals and information is presented on their screen as a map. The system uses WiSA radio equipment and new software, along with sensors built into existing irrigation infrastructure in trial fields. 

Although the initial outlay was significant – ranging from $600 to $2200 per hectare – Gillies said the long-term benefits could make the costs worthwhile. 

“For one farmer, he does all irrigation off-peak now – between 9pm and 7am and on the weekends,” said Gillies. “As you can imagine, when he did so, the energy costs for him pretty much halved.” 

Along with mitigating water wastage, Gillies also said the system can help farmers save travel time and costs.

“If I’m saving three trips a week, that’s 11,000km a year,” said Andrew Linton, who lives 30km from his Leichhardt farm. 

“That’s a month of not sitting in a car now. I’ve got heaps more time for other businesses, or the home farm, or my family, or myself.”

Flexibility is another key element underpinning Gillies’ design. Growers can choose whether to trigger irrigation switching in real-time remote, or set up automatic schedule sets. It is also modular, meaning automation can be established partially across the total farm area with option to expand as time and money permit.  

Research teams are still experimenting with different length sets, pulsing times, and the location of sensors in fields. The goal is to revolutionise the way farms are irrigated and improve farmers’ understanding of the science of soil moisture to optimise crop health. 

The system is another instance of ‘smart farming’ – where Internet of Things (IoT) applications are built into agriculture to improve efficiencies and outcomes.

Equipped with this irrigation technology, Australian farmers can now tend to land wherever they are, at a time suited to them – whether on the other side of the acreage, the country, or even the world. 
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