Out of this world: The mother of all agribusiness research hubs

With innovation hubs spreading like lantana across Australia, it’s perhaps unsurprising the unveiling of yet another one in February didn’t attract much attention. Yet Innovation Central Sydney (ICS) is no ordinary centre.

As Professor Mark Hoffman, Dean of Engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) explains, ICS is a little different.

“Take a look at what comprises the ICS partnership,” Hoffman says.

“There’s Cisco, a multinational that manufactures much of the hardware that runs the internet. It’s investing $15 million over five years. There’s UNSW, which employs around 7,000 scientists and also has several thousands of students, many of them entrepreneurial types, studying computer science or engineering at any one time.

“The Federal Government is involved through Data61, a new CSIRO research unit focused on data innovation. The State Government is involved through the NSW Department of Primary Industries. The farmers are involved through the National Farmers’ Federation and the NSW Farmers Association. And Australian Technology Park [ATP], which has two decades of experience in commercialising academic research, is also on board.

“I’m not aware of anything like it anywhere in the world.”

It’s expected ICS will facilitate the development of agribusiness-focused ‘Internet of Things’ technologies. There has, for example, long been interest in the agricultural applications of drones fitted with sensors. It’s hoped these could monitor everything from crop nutrition to soil quality to the spread of weeds and livestock disease on large properties.

“There’s a couple of agtech projects underway right now at ICS that I’m at liberty to mention,” Hoffman says. “One is forecasting bee health and hive activity by integrating microchip assets fitted to bees, which generate data that’s shared on the internet.

“Another involves using sensors placed around a property to allow for the real-time monitoring of water resources, from soil moisture to water flows. Traditionally, a farmer would drive around his property to, say, check the levels in his dams. He would then write that information in his notebook. Soon, all that data might be updated through sensors and be available not just to the farmer but also to other interested parties.”

With the world’s population continuing to grow and nations such as China and Israel pouring resources into agtech, Australia cannot afford to take its foot off the innovation accelerator.

“The thing about disruptive technologies is that you don’t tend to see them coming,” Hoffman observes. “But given the growing number of people needing to be fed, there are only two choices: either a lot more land is cleared for farms or we work out how to use existing agricultural land more efficiently. Technology, particularly the Internet of Things variety, promises to provide the big data that will allow land to be managed better.”

At this point, it’s worth noting Cisco estimates the market for “Internet of Things” technologies will be worth US$19 trillion by 2020. It also expects data traffic on mobile networks to increase from 44.2 to 366.8 exabytes[i] by the end of this decade (an exabyte equals one quintillion bytes).

Hoffman argues ICS is already showcasing how university students will learn, and farmers will farm, in coming years.

“Students are decreasingly learning in lecture theatres,” he says. “They can now access online the kind of technical content that used to be delivered in that context. What’s now happening at many universities is that students are being required to form groups and work on solving particular problems, often real-world problems a particular industry wants solved.”

“To take one example of how that can play out, two students began developing enterprise software technology while studying at UNSW; they then co-founded a start-up called Atlassian. That company is now valued at in excess of US$5 billion.”[ii]

Thanks to ICS, students hoping to create an ‘agribusiness Atlassian’ now have access to incredible technical resources and hardware, not to mention the guidance of Cisco engineers and commercialisation expertise through ATP.

And in a digitised world, it’s not just students who are having to adapt.

“I’m not sure if emerging technologies will drive further reductions in the agricultural workforce. But you will see a different type of farmer emerging,” Hoffman predicts. “Farming will be much more about cognitive skills than physical strength. It will be about having the capacity to understand and act on the growing volumes of data being provided by ever-more sophisticated technology.”