Smart startup saving water and Australia’s iconic reef

22.11.17

North Queensland cane farmers are saving up to 20% on irrigation costs courtesy of sensors and micro weather stations designed by an AgriFutures Australia sponsored startup.

The WaterSave solution, led by serial startup entrepreneur Damian Zammit, is also reducing fertiliser leakage to the Great Barrier Reef.

AgriFutures Australia is sponsoring Mr Zammit through Australia’s first ag-tech accelerator program, SproutX.

Originally working on an idea of sensory ear tags for cattle, Mr Zammit’s conversations with farmers kept coming back to the cost of irrigation, so his team embarked on a mission to reduce power and water costs on farms.

Irrigation costs farmers about 30% of their revenue and with water scarcity and power hikes the prices are continually driven up.

In addition to irrigation costs, the rainfall run-off and irrigation tail water is washing pesticides and fertilisers from cane farms into freshwater zones and coastal wetlands, affecting the Great Barrier Reef.

“Our team spoke with hundreds of farmers and they were genuinely concerned about the effect their fertilisers are having on the Great Barrier Reef,” said Mr Zammit.

By increasing the efficiency of irrigation, WaterSave not only reduces water and power costs for farmers but also reduces the amount of irrigation tail water washing fertilisers to the Great Barrier Reef.

WaterSave is a low power wide-area network of sensors that includes micro weather stations, nitrate, soil moisture and irrigation sensors. Each gateway communicates wirelessly with up to 1,000 sensors, which can be up to 15km away.

“Farmers can’t work any harder, and so this is about taking the guess work out of irrigation for them,” said Mr Zammit.

“Imagine reducing the irrigation time by a couple of hours and then multiplying that by hundreds of paddocks.”

WaterSave sets up antennas on farms and places sensors at the end of each irrigation set. The sensors detect the level of moisture and subsequently guide the farmers as to how much irrigation is required.

“A practical example is when a farmer starts an irrigation set, his end of row soil sensors will notify him if a valve actuator needs to be closed. If the main section of the paddock is sufficiently irrigated, the valves then redirect the water accordingly,” Mr Zammit said.

“The sensors provide a high level of information, farmers will view that, get live updates and operate it remotely.

“We are all about supporting remote management of farms and improving quality of life.”

The antennas work on radio frequency, which takes out the inconsistency of Wi-Fi connectivity, and battery life can be up to 10 years because the data packages being transmitted are small.

In the Burdekin region (south of Townsville) more than 800 farms now have access to the WaterSave infrastructure via a network of 10 LoRaWAN gateways. There are also 17 micro weather stations providing local farms with live data 24/7.

The micro water stations (which can be powered by solar panel) provide accurate information to farmers about weather patterns around their farms, which assists them with decision making.

Mr Zammit said an important factor for WaterSave is that it integrates into other commercial agricultural software packages.

“Our next step is using the data collected by sensors to look at trends which will help farmers with predictions,” Mr Zammit said.

“It’s not just about looking at the past, but using data and history to make decisions for the future.”