IoT gets real world farm testing in MLA initiative

Published on the 19/10/2018 | Written by Heather Wright

IoT on real farms

Forget the hype, we want ground-truthing…

The first of what could be a series of long-term on-farm internet of things trials will debut in Canberra next month as Meat and Livestock Australia step up their efforts to ‘ground truth’ IoT and show the reality behind the hype.

Sean Starling, Meat and Livestock Australia general manager of MDC, research, development and innovation, says while IoT has plenty of potential for the producer market, there’s ‘a significant mismatch between what solutions providers are offering and the way it’s perceived by end users’ which, along with unsuitable business models, is holding back the technology – and the sector.

“More often than not, it’s not as simple as buying a $200 IoT device sensor and installing it.”

Essentially, what Starling is saying – in a very polite way – is that there’s too much hype around IoT for producers, with solutions not matching up to their claims.

It’s something Starling has seen many times in his role with MLA, which is a producer-owned not-for-profit, providing research development and marketing for Australia’s red meat industry.

He cites examples including an IoT connectivity provider who, when taken to the highest point on the farm where coverage would be best, asked where the nearest power point was.

“I kid you not. They were saying they’re helping our industry get connectivity in areas where there is no connectivity, but were expecting a power point. Best you go and learn how solar cells and batteries work, my friend!”

Starling says, to the provider’s credit, they have since done exactly that.

MLA is currently installing a range of sensors and connectivity solutions across five cattle and sheep farms around Canberra.

The offerings, which include connectivity solutions, sensors, software dashboards and drones, will be showcased as part of MLA’s Digital Forum – themed ‘From the Hype to the Happening’ – next month, but Starling says so long as the open day isn’t disruptive for the farms, a gentleman’s agreement will see them remain open for the next three to five years as technology testbeds, with regular producer and solution provider open days.

Setting up the farms has highlighted to Starling the number of companies whose IoT offerings aren’t ready for real-life scenarios. He notes that the process of securing investment means startups need to promote their product as ready to go. “It’s the whole investment cycle around start-ups that is causing grief as well.”

Starling says MLA will be using the Canberra tests to produce a report highlighting things producers need to be mindful of with IoT, including the monthly, quarterly or annual use charge for devices, the complicated nature of IoT’s requirements and the costs involved.

“One of our learnings to date is that more often than not, it’s not as simple as buying a $200 IoT device sensor and installing it. Often you have to outfit your farm with connectivity solutions as well for those sensors to work.”

That can add many thousands of dollars of cost to the installations, he notes. “And we wonder why producers aren’t adopting this?”

He believes the current pricing models are wrong and providers should look instead to models similar to the mobile phone and broadband markets.

“When phones first came out you had to buy them outright, now you can effectively get one for free if you sign up for a three-year contract.

“The current IoT business model is a holdup: Selling it all up front plus an ongoing fee is not the right model because then you’re reliant on the producer having to work out if they’re going to get a return from the $50,000 to $100,000 they’re going to spend.

“Maybe in two- or three-year’s time, when we know what returns these widgets actually provide, it will be a no-brainer. But at the moment the business models are holding this up.”

Instead, he says providers should consider installing the equipment for free and locking producers into a three-year deal, with the first 12 months paying off installation costs and ongoing maintenance. Producers pulling out within the first 12 months would have to pay the installation cost, plus a removal fee.

“I’d be putting stuff in for free and making the exit price difficult rather than the buy in price being difficult.

Starling says he’s hoping the Canberra trial farms model will also be rolled out in Australia’s North and West as well, providing a series of farms across Australia operating as test beds for the technologies.

“What we want to do is get producers to know that we have go this farm happening so when they get a solution guy knocking on their door the first question they should ask is have you got your kit on one of the MLA test farms?

“If they don’t I’d question whether I’d buy from them.”

IoT successes
But while there are issues with IoT on the farm, there are also solid use cases highlighting its true benefits.

Western Australia’s Murchison House Station, which farms beef and free-range goats, is working on a whole of farm monitoring system with Origo Farms. Stage one has seen NBN from the local town beamed 15km to the homestead where it is beamed around the 300,000 acre farm. Water monitoring system has been installed with flow metres and level switches eliminating the 250km drive three times a week to check waters.

“We always knew it was going to be laboursaving,” Starling says. “What we didn’t know was the farm manager reckons it will probably save him one Toyota Landcruiser replacement per year because the terrain is so terrible.”

Stage two will see cameras and automatic gates installed on the water traps and mustering points. Where previously mustering goats meant driving out to pen in the goats (with many goats wise to the sound of approaching vehicles fleeing and no way of knowing how many goats might be there), the new system will enable the farm to know exactly how many goats are in the catchment area and electronically shut the gates, penning animals in before sending out the appropriate sized vehicle to transport the animals.

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