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Wireless Water: the search for a new breed of agri-technology has begun

The wine industry is fortunate in that it cultivates a crop that’s largely adapted to dry conditions, with drier years often being an indicator of quality vintages. But even a vineyard’s natural resilience can be pushed to the limit and beyond by consecutive years of drought.

Better rainfall last year replenished reserves in some regions, but producers have realised they need to look beyond Mother Nature for a sustainable future.

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is a term coined by the World Economic Forum to describe a new economy that blurs the distinction between online and offline worlds, merging biology, technology and systems at an unprecedented pace. These developments have the potential to radically change our relationship with water at a time when it’s at its most tenuous. But in the timeless words of every four-year-old: Are we there yet?

Smart people prefer smart technologies

While impressive technologies such as cloud seeding and desalination may help stretch water resources, these expensive solutions typically rely on second-wave, linear thinking which is determined to regain a steady supply of natural resources. Instead, a new, holistic understanding of the variables is required. In other words, 4IR is about relevant, contextual information, carefully extracted and interpreted from a staggering array of sources. This is the age of big data.

To address the challenges and opportunities of the 4IR, the Western Cape’s department of agriculture, in collaboration with the Stellenbosch University Business School (USB), commissioned a study to examine how agriculture can be transformed if the farming sector. Government and education institutions worked together to harvest the benefits of emerging smart technologies. Their report is well worth reading and can be downloaded from elsenburg.com/content/4th-industrial-revolution-evaluation-report.

It cites examples of smart technologies, including emerging technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI). But don’t expect to see all of Wellington’s vineyards connected to the internet or Beyers Truter sporting a set of futuristic VR goggles quite yet. Drones have recently become more prevalent and are being used for mapping and data gathering, but most technologies seen in South Africa’s vineyards tend to be more practical than fanciful. And that’s a good thing.

First the horse, then the cart

There’s no silver bullet to fight water scarcity. But the drought has shown the industry’s incredible adaptability as it learnt to manage water by changing wasteful behaviour and fine-tuning existing solutions. “The water restrictions have forced everyone to adapt,” Stellenbosch University soil water management researcher Vink Lategan says. “Water isn’t used to drive volumes anymore, but is applied
more thoughtfully and with quality in mind.” Drip irrigation is an elegant example.

Technology may be fast paced, but its implementation requires leadership and good governance, which moves much more slowly. “South Africa’s research is world class, but advances in technology can take up to 20 years to come into practice,” Vink says. Often it’s not just the cost, but also the relative advantages that seem hard to justify. “Technology usually starts off as being expensive and is regarded as a luxury. The oft-expressed sentiment is: ‘I’ve always been able to manage so why
do I need a drone now?’ ”

The USB’s draft review on smart water technology cites four factors that impact adoption: affordability, geographical viability, complexity of use and perceived risk to society at large.

But change is coming, and in many cases it’s sorely needed. “Over the past five years we’ve seen a big uptick in the use of measuring instruments on farms,” Vink says. Meanwhile organisations such as Winetech and Stellenbosch University’s Launchlab are actively looking for innovative and user-friendly solutions that are easy to adopt. This year Dr Albert Strever of the Agro-innovation hub at Stellenbosch University’s department of viticulture and oenology will investigate potential applications of the smart technology report in vineyards. Watch this space.

Some examples

Pieter Bester, head of engineering at Distell, describes 4IR as an advance in communication and connectivity rather than specific technologies. Separately, smart phones, sensors and wireless technologies are more than a decade old, but combining them in novel ways can increase water efficiency simply by providing current and accurate information.

“When your smartphone tells you exactly how much water you used for your last shower, that creates awareness,” Pieter says. “We use water meters in our industrial plants that are connected to internet service providers through old GPRS technology to monitor our water use. The service provider can send us alerts when leaks or high usage are identified.”

But even though the technology is available, costs remain prohibitive. “The cost of these services is still too high to implement at each of our sites, so we only monitor overall use in certain areas,” he says. “My hope is that 4IR will bring down these costs to enable more detailed and closer monitoring.”

The SunDrops-Control system

SunDrops-Control was a finalist in last year’s Agri-water Challenge sponsored by Advantage Austria, Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), Silicon Cape and RIIS. It’s a measuring and control system for the energy- and water-efficient irrigation of agricultural land. The system’s sensors, powered by a photovoltaic module, wirelessly measure the humidity and temperature of the soil at 10 cm and 60 cm and transmit the values to a central computer for evaluation according to specified parameters. When the predetermined soil moisture has been reached, the next driest area is targeted or the system switches off with solenoid valves.

Viticulturists can monitor and control the moisture status and soil temperature in real time through a web interface. According to its Austrian creators, 1stLevelSolar, irrigation systems fitted with the system have shown yield increases of 70-100% compared with conventional irrigation, while the system pays for itself in as little as four years thanks to energy savings.

FruitLook

FruitLook, funded by the Western Cape department of agriculture, will continue to feature in its 4IR plans. The programme aims to help producers yield more crop per drop by providing regular updates on crop growth, water use and plant nitrogen through information captured by satellite. FruitLook has about 700 regular users, including producers, consultants and researchers, and a recent survey showed 63% users found FruitLook made their water management at least 10% more efficient, while one in every 10 says they are using almost 30% less water than before. The service is subsidised and therefore free for agricultural use.

Doing more with less

Different soils, areas and cultivars have different water needs. Knowing the capacity of the soils and plants can tell a producer exactly when and where to irrigate, avoiding undesired results from too little or too much water. This kind of precision, aided by technology, will equip the industry to deal with heightened uncertainty and rapid changes. Precision data generated through research translates into better decision making, not just at farm level, but ultimately at regional and national level, propelling South Africa into a sustainable future.


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