Future opportunities for military technology to advance agriculture

Australian producers have been at the forefront globally in adopting new technologies that deliver management efficiency and productivity benefits. The pressure of a highly variable climate and managing volatile export-focused markets has driven this adoption. Advanced pesticide technologies and no-tillage conservation agriculture practices have had an essential role in improving agricultural broadacre productivity and buffering the impacts of the widespread Australian drought in 2006 and most recently in 2019.[1] Producers today face limited skilled regional labour resources and are increasingly focused on demonstrating appropriate stewardship of the land and animal husbandry.

To manage these challenges, Australian producers are using technologies that provide near real-time feedback on the best management decision options or identify where further field investigation of issues should be specifically addressed. Much of the foundation for many of these decisions has been made possible through an accurate global positioning system (GPS), which was primarily designed for use in military applications. When selective availability of differential GPS was switched off by the US government on 1 May 2000, this led to more affordable use of field devices to both capture georeferenced data and monitor crops, pastures and animals in the field. Today this is often augmented with very accurate subscription or local beacon based differential correction (DGPS) that can deliver accuracy of up to +/- 1-2 cm. Today more than 85 per cent of broadacre producers have adopted DGPS real-time kinematic autosteer systems, which has revolutionised farm efficiency while leading to cost savings of between 8-12 per cent.

Additionally field data connectivity to web or cloud based tools are becoming an important function in farm business operations and decision-making. Mobile phone data connectivity will continue as the dominant farm connectivity technology for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for nearly half of all Australian producers, access to many of the web based cloud technologies available is limited by a lack of in-field mobile data connectivity. While there are an increasing number of satellite based and LoRaWAN field network systems becoming available and being used by producers, this is mostly limited to low bit-rate data applications for sensors. Increasingly data rich, high bit-rate technologies that will include image capture and field scanning will be used with future autonomous equipment, which will require enhanced in-field data connectivity solutions for both operational efficiency and safety.  These challenges have been considered in the recent development of a world first Australian code of practice for agricultural field machine autonomy[2], which has attracted significant international interest.

Looking back over the last twenty years of advancement in agricultural production systems and precision agriculture practices, the foundation of many of these technologies has been military in origin. Technologies such as GPS, DGPS, gyros and telemetry systems from ICBM and guided missile weapons for use in autosteer and autonomy, digital image sensors and satellite imagery, machine learning for use in precision agriculture images, drones and of course the internet itself all have their origins from military development. Military technologies that may have potential future agricultural applications may include new positioning and field communication technologies, microwave systems and high energy lasers, advanced remote sensing systems, ground penetrating sensors, field sensors for chemicals, biologicals and other field pests, machine learning and autonomy technology.

Military technology clearly has a significant impact on advancing agricultural systems and production. These technologies will also be used as cost effective tools to measure and demonstrate industry stewardship and compliance to maintain social licence for production and maintain community and market confidence in what is produced. A number of emerging advanced military technologies could help address production issues in agriculture; the challenge is how can we enhance or accelerate the rate of technology transfer from military to agricultural applications?

The CEAT Fellowship presents an opportunity for me to review these challenges and opportunities in collaboration with CEAT partners including CSIRO and ANU, plus other relevant institutions and government agencies. This study will focus on potential future use of military technology in agriculture and options for building functional collaborative research programs to deliver agricultural industry focused outcomes and benefits while addressing the risks and security needs of these technologies.

[1] The official Australian reference guide for organic, synthetic and biological pesticides. Croplife Australia 2021. Co-authored by CEAT Fellow Dr Rohan Rainbow https://www.croplife.org.au/resources/reports/the-official-australian-reference-guide-for-organic-synthetic-and-biological-pesticides/

[2] CODE OF PRACTICE; Agricultural Mobile Field Machinery with Autonomous Functions in Australia – Will be publicly released April 2021.  The development of this Code of Practice has been led by CEAT Fellow Dr Rohan Rainbow – Visit www.grainproducers.com.au for further information.

Back to News