Field trials on a grand scale
In the last MEA Logbook, we talked about MEA’s Plexus, a new radio system, designed to get farmer’s soil moisture data direct to their mobile phone, anytime, anywhere.
Plexus can network many sensors across large areas, so how do you test something that big?
The short answer is that you find a ‘test bunny’ – a company with a ‘can-do’ approach to trying out new things and able to live with all the inconvenience and uncertainty of having engineers fiddling about all over their property.
That company for us was Yalumba; they gave us free-access to 250 hectares of an undulating vineyard in the South Australian Riverland called ‘Oxford Landing’.
These Yalumba folk are just a nice bunch, with a company culture that embraces and seems to thrive on new ideas, and a certain relaxation about the inevitable disasters that occur along the way.
At Oxford Landing, over the past decade, we have tried out plant-based measurement systems, soil salinity sensors, weather stations, radio-linked sensors and soil moisture gear of all colours and flavours.
And yes, it was a bit of a hike to get up there from Adelaide, but we did enjoy the mandatory stops at the Truro bakery to update breakfast with coffee and buns.
And sure, we learnt that we could build a ‘hopping radio’ that runs off the smell of an oily electron, with 4kms being the greatest radius from the Hub and near-perfect data delivery.
But the real dramas were those that we could never have solved in the comfort of our workshops – how to build equipment that will survive the horrors of over-row pruning, spraying and harvesting.
Ultimately, we returned thirteen times to Oxford Landing with Plexus alone, each time with a whole new plan, a new bunch of gear and a ‘this time for sure!’ mentality.
Finally, it did happen. We went to market with Plexus in the solid belief that few growers could stump us or Plexus – that we’d finally nailed it.
But that was before we decided to test Plexus over 3000 acres (1200 hectares) in a Victorian almond orchard (story to come)…
Dr. Andrew Skinner
on 28 May 2014