“Witchcraft to the ignorant…simple science to the learned.” And with that simple statement, science fiction writer, Leigh Brackett, summed up much of the technological environment we see today. The more famous version of that sentiment followed on over thirty years later when, in 1973, Arthur C. Clarke’s third law stated that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Can you imagine taking some of our modern conveniences back only a few decades and showing people of that time. You may very easily have been burned at the stake! TVs with wireless remote controls only started appearing in the late seventies. Imagine magically making a TV change channel without touching it. Along a similar vein, remote controls for cars didn’t start appearing commonly until the nineties. The first mobile phone call was made in 1973 and commercial TV itself only appeared in this country in 1956. You don’t have to go back that far to appear magical by making a glass bulb turn on with the flick of a switch with Tasmania being the first state with a transmitted supply just over one hundred years ago. There are so many items we take for granted and use every day that are only relatively recent in our history: The Internet; GPS; Streaming, Smartphones…my young teenage daughter rang me last week when I was at 39,000 feet. Knowing that I would incur the wrath of my fellow passengers by taking the call, I assumed it was an emergency as she knew I was between countries. I still think taking a phone call while flying at 0.85 Mach and 12km above the earth is pretty cool. When I asked about the emergency, there was nothing to report. She was bored and making a call to a plane was no big deal to her!

Without some simple understanding of the technology behind these everyday occurrences, they all appear ‘magical’.

It is with that backdrop that I want to look forward. Given the speed of change in the technological world and how silly some technology looks with the advantage of time (I’m looking at you 3D TV) making technology predictions is a dangerous game.

We have only had the Internet in this country for thirty years, but we are on the cusp of having the Internet on, well, everything. With the progression of low power transmissions, advanced batteries and better connectivity, we can connect so many useful items to the Internet. We are already seeing connected cars with the ability to remotely monitor location and speed of a vehicle. Interesting when you give your teenagers the keys to the family transport but imagine the increased efficiency in an organisation when all fleet vehicles are being monitored in real-time. Add in a dash of AI and the huge amount of data can be used to track the efficiency of drivers and delivery runs across a company. This is not uncommon already for regional businesses that rely on delivery vehicles to track the exact whereabouts of their entire fleet. Knowledge is power and this delivers a better experience for the clients and is safer for the drivers – this is while we still have drivers but I will leave autonomous cars alone for the moment. On the other hand, autonomous tractors with some sprinkling of AI are already making a difference to agriculture. Sitting on a tractor for hours on end is boring and falling asleep and running into a fence can be costly. With no traffic to worry about and an open paddock, autonomous tractors are already working the farms in regional areas. The next time you drive on a country road and see a tractor out in the field, have a close look to see if you can spot a driver. When you factor in the ability to monitor the soil and weeds below the tractor and change behaviour accordingly, you start to see some dramatic improvement in efficiency of cropping. This isn’t limited to tractors. Water is a precious resource and fertiliser and chemicals are expensive. Pivot irrigators are now able to install IoT sensors at strategic locations around their irrigated area and the centre pivot used to irrigate an area can then automatically adjust water and additives to specifically what is required at each area. Yield increases of twenty per cent have been achieved with a reduction in costs. One client I know couldn’t wait until the mobile reception was good enough at their farm and installed their own farm-wide Wi-Fi system to ensure internal communications were at a good enough level to implement this technology. This same technology is being developed for broadacre farming although the measuring is more often performed manually due to the larger area being covered. Give it time though. As IoT develops and communication links improve, permanently installed IoT devices across the ground will be as common as star pickets across a farm.

And don’t think cattle and sheep farmers are being left out of this. As weather patterns change and farmers are trying to extract the most from precious few resources, measuring and monitoring is the new farming mantra. Entire livestock farm management software companies are developing solutions to constant monitoring. Measure what you treasure. Gone are the days of putting your livestock in a large paddock with a dam full of water and coming back when they have fattened up. Critical measurements are being taken of stock and they are rotated through specific areas of farmland. Water troughs are monitored remotely to ensure a constant supply of water is available. The ultimate aim is to develop the technology far enough to remotely monitor individual animals from a remote location anywhere in the world. In Australia we have land but not a lot of water. If we can be at the forefront of this farming technology revolution, we are well placed to maximise the efficiency of the land despite our lack of water.

It is somewhat obvious but regional communities have dramatically lower population densities compared to metropolitan areas. That is a social strength but it has been a technology weakness. When additional communication links are being built – either wireless or fixed – it is logical that a telco will build infrastructure where population density is greater. Better return on their investment. Logically you would think this would continue with the advent of 5G – but maybe we will be rescued by the sheep! With 75 million sheep in Australia (and 26 million cattle) if we end up with 5G monitoring devices attached to all of these animals, telecommunication companies may focus their attention on regional areas first! I may be dreaming but there is logic in the argument.

Much of the world focuses IoT on smart home devices and freight deliveries and bridges and physical items but there is a strong argument that our increased food production should be at the forefront of our technological thinking. In the same way that the CSIRO has led the world in areas such as Wi-Fi and plastic bank notes, I would be happy with $150 million going to the Australian organisation (rather than NASA) to develop world-leading technologies in IoT for the improvement of product yields.

For the supporters of the CSIRO, that decision would be indistinguishable from magic!

Tell me where I have missed the mark with regional IoT at ask@techtalk.digital.

Mathew Dickerson

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