The weather station at Golden Grove Nursery. Image: Applied Horticulture Research
 A four-year trial focused on horticulture production in the Great Barrier Reef catchment area has demonstrated how digital remote monitoring can lead to more sustainable and productive irrigation management practices.

Australia’s water supply is declining while demand continues to rise, making it critical to find ways to do more with less. With the agriculture sector accounting for around three quarters of total water use, optimising irrigation with the help of innovative technologies is a key focus area.

In a recent project funded by the Federal Government’s National Landcare Program as well as Hort Innovation, digital remote monitoring was found to deliver significant environmental and productivity gains across selected horticulture farms within the Great Barrier Reef catchment area.

The project involved participation and co-investment from several industry partners, including:

  • Applied Horticultural Research
  • Greenlife Industry Australia
  • AusVeg
  • Freshcare
  • Growcom
  • Australian Banana Growers Council
  • Hitachi Australia
  • Hitachi Digital Services

Laying the groundwork

Following their nomination by their respective sponsoring peak bodies, Bartle Frere Bananas, Austchilli Group (vegetable farm) and Golden Grove Nurseries were chosen to take part in the four-year trial. Hitachi Digital Services was engaged to provide the required tech platform and sensing equipment.

Hitachi Digital Services Senior Director, Dr Owen Keates, said the trial was tailored to each farm, with a discovery workshop onsite to understand both the unique environmental considerations, as well as productivity drivers.

“While fully committed to improving environmental outcomes, each farm also requested that the pilot also support productivity improvements wherever possible. The consensus was that improved environmental outcomes coupled with productivity improvements would drive greater adoption of these technologies in the broader sectors.”

Some common technologies were used in the project – the data platform and connectivity systems, weather stations and soil moisture sensors – as well as additional technologies dependent on the specific requirements of each farm.

“The banana farm sensor package included an inline nitrate monitor to measure any residual nitrate in the groundwater and the chilli farm included dendrometers to monitor chilli growth. The citrus nursery utilised extensive water quality sensors as well as modified media moisture sensors and instrumentation to measure volume of leachate.”

Selecting an appropriate communication system posed a challenge early on, as the Hitachi team sought to have a common system across all farms. Dr Keates said this was resolved by utilising Category M1 communication protocols, which are specifically designed for low-power, wide-area Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

“The nursery required the co-creation of new instrumentation to provide key data regarding amount of leachate passing through the pots which indicated that irrigation could be turned off.”

Harvesting the data

Once data was collected from the various sensors, it was then uploaded to the Hitachi Control Tower every 15 to 30 minutes. Dr Keates said while real-time data uploads are possible when required, it’s more cost-effective to space them out at intervals.

The data was then passed through algorithms which process data from all sensors, correlate it with pre- programmed alert and trigger points and provide decision support such as:

a. When to irrigate and how much
b. Volume of recycled water available
c. Fertigation requirements
d. Runoff quality

Ensuring the smooth operation of any newly adopted technology often requires ongoing maintenance and support. The Hitachi Control Tower’s continuous monitoring of sensor and system health simplifies the process by altering when maintenance is required.

“While the sensors do require maintenance, much of this can be done by farm staff,” Dr Keates said.

“However, the next phase will engage local sensor/ instrumentation service providers that can offer additional maintenance services including the provision of required spares.

“The next version of the Hitachi Control Tower will have additional functionality as well, including a mobile-friendly application.”

Sensor success

The implementation of advanced sensor technology has led to tangible benefits for all participating farms.

“Across the farms the data-driven approach arising from the effective use of sensors has optimised irrigation practices and minimised nitrate runoff, leading to both productivity improvements and improved environmental outcomes.”

Amidst these successes, Golden Grove Nursery shines as a standout example, reporting an impressive 30 per cent reduction in water consumption thanks to the trial. In addition, they have also seen the following benefits:

  1. Shortened intervals for water sampling and testing through automation (every 15 minutes as opposed to twice per week manually)
  2. Adjusted irrigation to avoid root damage and improve nutrient mix
  3. Simplified data capture for accreditation reporting
  4. Reduced operational costs with optimised fertilisation and irrigation

The citrus nursery also reaped wider recognition for its efforts, winning the 2023 iTNews Benchmark Awards Best Sustainability Project.

“Golden Grove Nursery have indicated they would like to continue after the trial and managed services are being established to support this,” Dr Keates said.

Bright future ahead

It’s clear that digital remote monitoring and data-driven tech has significant potential to transform irrigation practices, but what does this mean for pumps?

As sensor technology enables more precise irrigation, this may drive demand for more advanced pump systems that can deliver precise volumes of water to specific areas of a farm. Automation could streamline this process further, allowing pumps to adjust flow rates and timings automatically based on real-time sensor data.

“At this stage the Hitachi Control Tower does not automatically switch the irrigation systems on and off,” Dr Keates said.

“But potential automation of the irrigation systems is being considered for the next phase.”

Featured image: The weather station at Golden Grove Nursery. Image: Applied Horticulture Research

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