AgTech applications could revolutionise the cotton farming industry

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Researchers at Monash University are applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology and game-design practices to reduce spray drift from agricultural pesticides, minimising the negative impact on neighbouring crops and wildlife.

Pesticides are used in farming practices to protect crops against pests, weeds and diseases, and help ensure the Australian agricultural industry remains productive, profitable and sustainable. The movement of pesticides beyond the target crop, termed spray drift, is undesirable as it results in wastage and unwanted exposure to non-target areas.

Spray drift costs the Australian cotton industry more than $18 million in crop losses in 2018 alone. Spray drift and the unwanted movement of pesticides is a global environmental issue.

While there is currently no way of receiving immediate feedback to indicate if spray set up and operation is correct, the Revolutionising Agricultural Spray Applications for the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC) project aims to address this challenge.

The partnership between the Faculty of Information Technology (IT) at Monash University, BARD AI, PentaQuest, and AgriSci, is applying technology solutions that support informed spraying operations and better decision-making to reduce the impacts of spray drift and improve overall agricultural productivity, profitability and sustainability.

Faculty of IT Interim Dean, Professor Ann Nicholson, says the project is currently developing cutting-edge solutions that combine AI technology, information and psychology to tackle the challenge of spray drift.

“Information alone does not change behaviour and the use of advanced technology doesn’t ensure the adoption of new platforms by farmers. By incorporating game-like design applications which drive better training and engagement outcomes, together with AI-driven decision support modelling, we’re able to deliver continuous adoption and accurate decision support that informs farmers appropriately,” said Professor Nicholson.

The gamification mechanics of the platform will encourage behavioural change by incentivising farmers through community participation, recognition of compliance as well as real-time risk assessments regarding their current spraying practices. The AI component of the project will rely on Bayesian Networks, which provide a rigorous probabilistic methodology for modelling real world problems. This technology will deliver decision support to inform farmers in real-time about the potential risks and consequences of their spraying decisions.

As Founder of BARD AI, Ross Pearson explains, this solution focuses on spray drift in a broad acre setting, but its potential and applications are much greater.

“Our solution combines leading-edge thinking and technology in behavioural science and probabilistic modelling to deliver an engaging experience for farmers that supports them through better decision-making,” said Mr Pearson.

Representing SOS Gwydir, a group of like-minded growers, agronomists, resellers, consultants and spray contractors who want to eradicate spray drift, Byron Birch explains the need to engage the agricultural community and encourage practice change that reduces the occurrence of off-target spraying and safer spraying techniques.

“Off target spray drift is like cancer from passive smoking. It is the invisible cloud that can destroy another farmers’ livelihood down wind. Education, technology and regulation are all needed to fight the problem,” said Farmer and Consultant Byron Birch.

Mary O’Brien from Mary O’Brien Rural Enterprises, works as a private consultant conducting spray application and drift management workshops around Australia. She has travelled to Canada and the United States, teaching and working with farmers and researchers on spray application and has worked extensively with spray contractors and farmers in Australia.

“It’s important to deliver spray training in a practical and accessible format for applicators. This facilitates better engagement and learning outcomes, and more importantly, leads to better adoption and uptake of best practice,” said Mary O’Brien.

The project received a Business Research and Innovation Initiative (BRII) grant of close to $100,000 earlier this year and will be eligible to apply for a grant of up to $1 million to develop a prototype or proof of concept later this year.

BARD AI, which is a spin-off from a US Government funded research project led by Monash University, has been supported by Monash’s Enterprise portfolio by establishing commercialisation pathways with CSIRO’s ON Program, the Monash Generator Accelerator Program, as well as connectivity to the agricultural sector through the Monash AgTech LaunchPad.