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Aussie students close in on Microsoft prize

A group of Australian University students, including one of Australia's most well-known technology bloggers, has progressed to the finals of the Microsoft-sponsored Imagine Cup software development competition in Paris.
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Written by Brett Winterford on

A group of Australian University students, including one of Australia's most well-known technology bloggers, has progressed to the finals of the Microsoft-sponsored Imagine Cup software development competition in Paris.

Team SOAK in Paris

Students David Burela, Long Zheng, Edward Hooper and Dimaz Pramudya, collectively called Team SOAK, showcased a solution that helps farmers moderate the use of water on their crops. Zheng has achieved local renown in the local and international Microsoft community through his I started something blog.

Team SOAK is one of six teams remaining in the finals stage of the competition that saw entries from over 200,000 technology students around the globe.

The winning team will walk out with US$15,000 cash after an announcement at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France on Tuesday night.

The students were asked to build a complete software solution using Microsoft tools under the theme "imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment".

Team Soak, featuring students from Swinbourne University, Monash University, the University of Tasmania, and Melbourne University, developed a system aimed at automating the various manual systems farmers use to coordinate the pumps, drippers and sprinklers that water their crops.

SOAK tightly controls the irrigation on a given property using a Zigbee-powered sensor network to detect such variables as temperature, dam levels, soil moisture and salinity or wind speed.

These sensors connect to a software system that is also fed by internet weather forecasts and other external data sources relating to the property's water health. The system can, for example, hold off on watering an area should rain be forecast the following day, but kick back in should rain not eventuate.

The solution is built on industry-standard hardware and Microsoft software, using sensors that the team estimates could cost as little as AU$100. Current sensor networks, the students said, cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The students developed the solution after discovering that some 66 per cent of Australia's water use is attributable to rural irrigation.

Australia is in a serious drought, the students told judges from around the globe, and the yield from the last Australian summer's crop was down a frightening 59 per cent last year.

-We all feel it in terms of the impact on food prices," said Zheng in the team's presentation.

A solution is required, he said, that helps farmers manage water more effectively. -It's about making the best of what little we have."

The solution has been tested and showered with praise by the Morning Star Estate Winery in Victoria, and has also been lauded by both the Victorian Farmers Federation and The National Party.

The students also claim to be in discussion with hardware manufacturer Hewlett-Packard about the potential for selling the solution as a complete hardware and software package.

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