NBN powers robotic farms in rural Tasmania

The NBN is helping electrical contractors in rural Tasmania better support robotic dairies and remote-controlled farm irrigation systems, according to Andrew Dare Electrical Services managing director, John Dare.

In an interview with Computerworld Australia, Dare described some difficulties signing up and connecting to the NBN, but stressed that he has been very satisfied with what faster and more reliable broadband has brought to his business.

Also read: What's life really like with the NBN? -- Part 1, Part 2

Before connecting to the NBN, Dare Electrical’s headquarters in Deloraine was connected to Telstra’s 12Mbps ADSL service.

Initially, Dare opted for the lowest tier of NBN service from iiNet, providing 50GB per month with base speeds of 25Mbps down and 10Mbps up. However, after understanding its requirements better, the company upgraded to the next tier, which provides 250GB data and speeds of 50Mbps up and 250Mbps down.

Broadband on the farm

A reliable Internet connection is required to operate “fully robotic” dairies that are serviced by the electrical contractors, Dare said. Dare Electrical maintains one of these high-tech dairies in the Meander Valley, where cows are voluntarily milked by three robots, he said.

The cows, which are milked as they feed, wander in on their own volition about two or three times per day, Dare said.

An articulated arm with four joints “goes in under the cow and looks at the udder of the cow” using lasers and proximity sensors, said Dare. “Once it determines where the teats are, it memorises that and it also knows which cow is in there because of the ear tag on the cow.”

The next time the cow comes in, the robot will recognise it, he said. “The hand on the arm of the robot will come in and go for the right place on first go.”

The dairy is operated fully automatically and the farmer only has to attend once or twice a day, said Dare. However, an Internet connection is required so that the farmer and electrical contractors can monitor the dairy and ensure that everything is working properly, he said.

Internet access is also critical in enabling farmers to remotely control and monitor irrigation systems for their crops, Dare said. Farmers currently use Internet-connected moisture meters and other sensors for monitoring, but access to faster broadband through the NBN will allow farmers to install video cameras, he said.

An irrigation system in Tasmania. Credit: Dare Electrical

“Cameras are where it’s headed,” said Dare, predicting they will begin to appear on farms in the next 12 months. However, video requires more data so high-speed broadband connections on the farm will be required, he said.

Next page: Connecting to the NBN

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Connecting to the NBN

The entire process from signing up to installation of the NBN took about four weeks, said Dare.

The business experienced an unexpected complication trying to sign up: Telstra told the company it didn’t sell any NBN services for businesses, said Dare. Dare took to the phonebook and found iiNet, which was happy to connect the business.

Connecting the aerial cables to the office also presented more of a hassle than expected, Dare said.

When NBN Co workers came out to evaluate the job, they said it looked easy as it was just a matter of running a cable across the street, Dare said.

However, it turned out cherry pickers had to be brought in, and Dare had to provide workers to stop traffic during the installation. The job itself only took around 10 minutes, however.

Using the NBN

Dare said the NBN has greatly improved the quality of Skype video calls and Google Maps, two Internet-based tools used extensively by the Tasmanian electrical contractors.

The business uses Skype to talk to farmers and suppliers, he said. Before the NBN, Skype was slow to load and frequently dropped out, he said. “It was not practical at all,” he said.

The service has much improved since turning on the NBN, Dare said. Skype remains a problem if the other end is not connected to fibre, “but certainly on our end it’s fantastic.”

Dare Electrical relies on Google Maps to remotely assess land for new installations around the countryside.

“Prior to getting the NBN on, it was bloody painful to download these maps,” he said. “With the NBN, it just loads very fast and just saves so much time. And it’s stable as well.”

“The difference in speed of loading, speed of data manipulation—it would be really, really difficult to go back to the old system.”

Dare said the network could be a major cost saver for support.

“For us to send a fellow out to a farm, and maybe all it’s to do is reset a microswitch or to reset a circuit breaker, can cost at least $100 and probably more.”

“If we can see that alarm on our machine in our office, we can call the farm up and say, ‘Look, go out there and reset that circuit breaker.”

He added that he’s excited about new things that the NBN may enable for his business in the future.

“I think we’ve only started. Many other opportunities are going to come up. I’m sure of that.”

NBN politics

Dare said he’s not concerned with fighting between the Labor and Liberal parties over the future direction of the NBN.

“Politics is politics, and there’s a lot of games to be played there,” he said. “If the Liberals get in, they might use different tools, but I think the outcome is going to be very similar.”

Some businesses need the highest speeds provided by the Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises plan, he said, “but a lot of businesses don’t.”

Dare added that he does not see fibre ever completely replacing copper.

“We are probably 100 metres back from the road and so all of the power and all the communications are underground,” he said. “There is no way in Hell anybody’s going to tear up all that land and dig out the copper and put a bloody fibre optic in. They’re not going to do it, and I’m not going to let them put poles in.”

A national broadband network is critical to the growth of regional Australia, however, Dare said.

“Cities are getting far too large. With the NBN, it gives people the opportunity to work in rural and remote areas.”

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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