Aussie students quench farmers thirst for water management

Aussie hardware/software platform helping farmers achieve sustainable use of land takes top honour at Imagine Cup.

An Australian team of young students has taken out top honours in the Software Design invitational competition at Microsoft's Imagine Cup 2008 global finals at the Musee du Louvre, Paris.

The Imagine Cup is a competition that encourages students to use Microsoft software to address technological and societal challenges. 370 students formed 124 teams representing 61 countries at the awards, competing in nine categories including software design, embedded development, game development, algorithm, photography, short film and interface design.

After winning the Imagine Cup national finals, Australia's Team SOAK - David Burela, Dimaz Pramudya, Ed Hooper and Long Zheng - took out the Software Design invitational with their Smart Operational Agriculture toolkit (SOAK); an integrated software and hardware platform aiming to help farmers achieve sustainable use of their land.

SOAK was developed to address climate change and allows for integrated use of environmental sensing, rich visual front ends to display information to farmers, and a subsystem which controls farm equipment such as sprinkler systems.

Its aim is to improve water usage by empowering farmers to make better, faster and more accurate decisions which affect water usage on their farm.

Microsoft Australia's director of academic initiatives, Ben English, said the fact that a local team has won is incredible and showcases Australian talents and capabilities on a global scale.

"Australia has experienced terrible times of drought, which have had wide-reaching effects on our economy; SOAK demonstrates so powerfully the role that local innovation and our local talent can play in helping solve big problems, not only in Australia, but across the world," he said.

SOAK collects data from temperature, rainfall, water depth, salinity and other sensors which provide real time information to assist with functions such as automated watering. Weather forecasts can be taken into consideration when calculating suitable watering times, for example, if rainfall is predicted the system can hold off watering to reduce consumption.

SOAK's executive summary explains: "By implementing agriculture best practices farmers can specify what conditions must be met before SOAK will water their plants. An example being the farmer configuring the system to water grapes weekly during the initial growth stages, but after the grape vine has grown fruit to restrict the water supplied so as to drive up the sugar content (and sweetness)."

Farmers interact with SOAK directly through three targeted platforms. "A Silverlight application is used for administration of the farm, a PDA application is used to give the farmer access to quick information about sectors when they are out in the field; and a Vista sidebar gadget is used to provide quick visual information about the farm's water health."

Farmers can be notified of critical moisture levels via SMS or Microsoft Live Alerts, which can also report on water line or farm equipment malfunctions.

"The principal differentiator for SOAK over current market offerings is the cheaper cost to install a SOAK implementation onto a farm. Standard server hardware and COTS sensor hardware can be easily integrated into the system bringing the entry requirements down within reach of most farmers. "

On its Imagine Cup 2008 team profile page, the SOAK team said they are currently talking to parties interested in assisting the commercialization of SOAK.

"With backing from industry bodies (like the National Party of Australia and the Victorian Farmers Federation), SOAK has a high chance of commercial success. There is a need in the market for a holistic system that can assist farmers in this problem domain," SOAK said.

SOAK edged out the second place team from Slovakia who developed software to monitor electricity consumption in a household, and the third placed team from Hungary with a similar water management system.

A video of the SOAK team can be viewed here.

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Andrew Hendry

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