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Sensors make good sense - Farmers water-wise with real-time data

A prototype online sensor network that monitors water flows is helping farmers along the Ringarooma catchment make timely decisions to optimise use of a precious resource

Jeremy Carins
Ringarooma farmer: Jeremy Carins with his cows.

By Megan Tudehope

An early online Sense-T prototype is already proving its value to farmers along the Ringarooma catchment. Farmers used the prototype dashboard to ensure water levels in the catchment stayed within healthy levels, avoiding regulatory intervention and maintaining water access for 70 farmers.

Sense-T is a partnership between the University of Tasmania, Tasmanian Government and CSIRO which uses cutting edge technology to create the world's first economy-wide sensor network. The simple online dashboard developed by Sense-T researchers presents real-time data about water flows in the Ringarooma, drawing data from sensors owned by the Department of Primary Industries; Parks, Water and the Environment (DPIPWE); Bureau of Meteorology; and CSIRO.

"It shows how people can be empowered through accurate and timely information."

Soon after releasing the prototype dashboard to a group of farmers, they noticed water levels were about to become critical which would trigger a "cease-to-take" order from the regulator (below 40ML a day).

They collaborated to release enough water from their own dams to keep levels in the catchment healthy and so, regulatory intervention that would have stopped about 70 farmers from drawing crucial irrigation water was avoided.

Acting Sense-T director Dr Mike Briers said the project demonstrated the power of putting real-time data into people's hands.

"Everybody in this scenario won – farmers kept access to irrigation water, the regulator saved time and resources, and the environment was protected.

"It shows how people can be empowered through accurate and timely information."

The Sense-T Adaptive Water Management Project is led by scientists from CSIRO and the University of Tasmania. It also involves DPIPWE and the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA).

Chairman of the project's advisory group is Ringarooma farmer Jeremy Carins, who told The Australian: "We are getting abetter understanding of how the river reacts to weather and how it reacts to what we are doing as well."

Both DPIPWE and TFGA have long been working together on ways to effectively manage water use to meet agricultural and environmental objectives.

Farmers would often informally collaborate to schedule irrigation to maintain healthy river flows.

The Sense-T project offered an opportunity to formalise and promote this collaboration, making it simple for farmers to monitor relevant data in one site.

With easy access to real-time information, farmers were able to respond quickly, working together to manage water resources and the environment, within the policies set by government.

A winning combination

Two years after itsfoundation, Sense-T marked an exciting milestone with the establishment of a spin-off company, Sense-Co.

Sense-T and Sense-Co are working side-by-side at the University towards a shared vision but each with a distinct focus. Sense-T is continuingto deliver its innovative research agenda while Sense-Co is focusing on commercial opportunities.

Sense-Co's current project is the Alpha Trial, which is testing new agricultural sensing technology developed by Sense-T at 20 trial sites around the state. The trial sites include a wide range of agricultural businesses including vineyards, broad acre pasture, dairy, annuals, biennials, berries and floriculture.

Founding Sense-T director Ros Harvey has moved across to be founding CEO of Sense-Co. Dr Mike Briers, a University of Tasmania alumnus who founded the hugely successful financial data organisation Sirca, has taken on the role of acting Sense-T director.

Dr Briers is overseeing stage two Sense-T research projects, expanding the current agricultural focus into areas such as freight and logistics, tourism, health, financial instruments and information technology.