The faces of remote sensing innovation at UNE

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The Agricultural Remote Sensing Team (ARST) from the University of New England’s Precision Agricultural Research Group (PARG).
The University of New England

Andrew Robson, Muhammad Moshiur and Jasmine Muir. Remember these names, because they belong to three very talented scientists who form the core of the Agricultural Remote Sensing Team (ARST) within the University of New England’s Precision Agricultural Research Group (PARG). The trio, with support from other PARG members David Lamb, Derek Schneider and Ashley Saint, have established themselves as the leading agricultural remote sensing group in Australia. The team currently lead or collaborate in remote sensing projects that span nine Australian agricultural industries (sugar, rice, avocado, mango, macadamia, banana, pineapple and multiple vegetable crops).

PARG, established in 2002, offers cutting-edge research and learning that supports the development and implementation of modern technologies such as satellite and ground-based remote sensing, geographic information systems, sensor networks and livestock tracking. Its mandate is to evaluate technologies and practices that offer benefit to the agriculture sector and to work with industry partners to see them implemented appropriately.

Remote sensing is a key technology for PARG and ARST. It allows growers to assess crop performance without physically making contact with it. Essentially, it means growers can open a computer or smartphone from anywhere in the world and monitor crops, assess pests and diseases, nutrient levels and projected yield.

With this information, growers can make better decisions about management, harvesting scheduling, labour requirements and forward selling. The implications of this research are relevant to all agricultural commodities, both in Australia and abroad.

So how did this trio come together and why has it been so effective?

Before joining the UNE PARG group three years ago, Robson started his agricultural career picking oranges in the Riverina, before being employed by the Queensland and New South Wales departments of primary industry for close to 20 years. The majority of his research, as well as his PhD study on peanuts, focused on the development of remote sensing applications specific to agriculture.

Rahman joined the group in 2015 after completing a doctorate in precision agriculture at UNE. Before settling in NSW, he had completed a Masters degrees in farm power and machinery in Bangladesh and agricultural and bio-resource engineering in the Netherlands. His expertise in plant growth modelling using remote sensing technologies is an extremely beneficial skill-set for the team.

Muir brings to the ARST 15 years experience in the spatial industry, predominantly through her employment with Queensland’s Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation, as well as private industry. Her expertise in remote sensing, including radar and LiDAR analysis, computer programming and ecological field sampling are of great value to the team.

When asked about the success the team has experienced in obtaining funding across many industries, Robson credits the collective abilities of its members, with particular reference to his background with the Department of Primary Industry. 

 “Having the ability to engage and listen to industry, to identify what are the relevant issues to production and farming efficiencies and then to ultimately work with them to evaluate and adopt new technologies is a what separates the PARG team from other agencies,” he says.

“We have been collaborating with a lot of these agricultural industries for many years, so we are a trusted deliverer of research. Now with the huge push for agriculture to adopt remote sensing technologies, we have established trust to help filter what is likely to be beneficial to the industry and what is just hype and salesmanship.”

The team’s project portfolio has increased significantly in the last 18 months. Highlights include the $7.2 million national Horticulture Tree crop project, jointly funded by the federal government’s Rural Research and Development for Profit scheme and Horticulture Innovation Australia (HIAL), and the $1.3 million sugarcane project funded by Sugar Research Australia.

Although led by the UNE, the national tree project includes collaborators such as the University of Queensland, University of Sydney, Central Queensland University, QDAF, DSITI, AgTrix and Simpson Farms. The national sugar project aims to automate the processing and delivery of crop vigour, derived yield and foliar nitrogen maps to more than 80,000 individual sugar crops annually as well as provide training to growers on how to implement variable rate technologies for improved Nitrogen management. The project is a direct collaboration between UNE and the commercial agricultural company Farmacist.

To complement these projects, ARST is just about to kick off another major national project, funded by HIAL and led by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. It aims to increase the vegetable industry’s adoption of precision agricultural technologies.

The three scientists are steadfastly committed to their work, and are spurred on by the impact they can have through their engagement with farmers, industry consultants and the wider community.

Recently this even involved presenting some of their work in front of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, when they made an appearance at UNE’s SMART Farm Innovation Centre in Armidale, where the PARG is headquartered.

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