Drought initiatives are ‘just tip of iceberg’, says Coppin

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A FarmBot in action.
Camera IconA FarmBot in action. Credit: FarmBot

The manager of national ag-tech start-up Farmbot says the Federal Government’s $86 million investment into drought innovation is just the tip of the iceberg of what is needed to help technology start-ups prosper.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud last month announced an $86 million windfall to establish eight Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hubs and release a Digital Foundations for Agriculture Strategy by mid-2021.

At the time, Mr Littleproud said the digital strategy would form part of the National Agricultural Innovation Agenda and support networks of researchers, farmers, agricultural businesses and community groups to enhance drought resilience practice, tools and technology.

Australian Agritech Association founding director and Farmbot managing director Andrew Coppin, pictured, said the development of a digital strategy for the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries was “an important step forward” for the Australian ag-tech industry.

But he said while the announcement’s focus on drought-research innovation provided a “focal point”, it was “just the tip of the iceberg” to creating better collaboration between ag-tech businesses and their target audience — farmers.

FarmBot managing director Andrew Coppin.
Camera IconFarmBot managing director Andrew Coppin. Credit: FarmBot

“Australia has some of the best, most innovative, and most resilient farmers in the world ... but it needs a strategy to support the overall development of ag-tech,” Mr Coppin said.

“Farmbot is a firm believer in the importance of having a national, agriculture-wide digital strategy which brings together skills, technology, policy and adoption.

“We will be throwing our weight of support behind the strategy and we see it as crucial to the development of our wider agriculture industry.”

Mr Littleproud said the hubs would provide a direct link between research providers and farmers, by providing a way for farmers to co-design innovative solutions that delivered real impacts on-farm.

The strategy is expected to set the foundations for uptake of digital technologies across the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries.

Mr Coppin said collaboration with industry would be key to the successful uptake of digital tools across our farms.

“Because of Australia’s size and distance, we need to work collegiately as a country to enhance our technology and take it to the world,” Mr Coppin said.

“I think there is a real opportunity for us to do that, and create world-leading technology, so we can then export into North and South America, and into Asia.”

Mr Coppin’s business, Farmbot, has grown rapidly since inception with the company increasing from four to 25 staff during the past two years.

More than 1700 of its remote-monitoring units in use nationwide, with the technology for sale in WA through Elders and Nutrien.

Farmbot designs remote water-level monitors to inform farmers and pastoralists about water levels, leaks and usage trends.

The units use satellite or 4G technology to provide near real-time access to water updates in an attempt to reduce time spent driving to visually inspect water points.

It distributes through Nutrien and Elders in WA, with what Mr Coppin said was a “big presence through the Wheatbelt area” and “big cattle stations” in the Pilbara and Kimberley.

The tool integrates with local software providers AgriWebb and Maia Grazing, as well as local and international telcos, hardware and cloud providers.

Mr Coppin said the biggest challenge faced by Australian ag-tech starts up was “education and adoption of technology”.

“Adoption is a big issue, and we applaud the government for putting a strategy in place to try and build on that adoption and innovation in regional areas,” he said.

“I hope it incentives farmers to really have a go and to test drive technology.

“I think that is super important that they can see that as a de-risked proposition.”

The Drought Innovation Hubs will be located in regional areas that reflect the key agricultural and climatic zones across the country,with hubs expected to be formed in Southern NSW, Southern QLD or northern NSW, WA, Victoria, the top end of WA or the NT, Tropical North Queensland, South Australia, and Tasmania.

The State Government is pushing for two of the Drought Innovation hubs to be based in WA — at Merredin and Kununurra.

The program also includes $11 million in funding for Drought Resilience Innovation Grants to support drought resilience initiatives for farmers, community groups, industry and researchers.

The Australian Farm Institute estimates full adoption of digital tools by the agriculture sector could boost productivity by around $20.3 billion each year.

To find out more about the Future Drought Fund and other drought resilience building programs visit: agriculture.gov.au/fdf

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