UNSW, Data61, Cisco team up for agriculture IoT centre

Networking giant Cisco, in conjunction with UNSW and Data61, has partnered with the public and private primary industry sector to explore the application of the Internet of Things in agriculture.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor on

Data61, the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and Cisco Systems announced a partnership on Monday with the National Farmers' Federation, the NSW Farmers Association, the NSW Department of Primary Industries, and startup incubator ATP Innovations to bring technology to the agricultural world.

Known as Innovation Central Sydney, this partnership will focus on developing new uses for Internet of Things (IoT) technologies within the agricultural sector, as well as extending these solutions into implementing smart cities and smarter transport solutions.

Speaking to journalists in Sydney, Kevin Bloch, Cisco CTO, said that previously, decisions in the agriculture world were based on human judgement -- on the farmer's gut instincts. He said now Australia is moving into an era where all of that can be instrumented via computers, and large-scale innovations need to be implemented to effectively tackle the future of the industry.

"The only way we can do this is not with the human brain, we need to measure it with sensors, collect that data, and do something smart with it," he said. "That is the basis for what we're trying to do here."

Bloch said innovation is not just about technology, it is largely dependent on the people and the process.

"Australia is the only agritech hub around the world," Bloch said. "We've got to grow this IoT market. This transformation that's taking place is having a major impact around the world, and we've got to catch up."

"Cisco cannot do it on our own, we've got to build an ecosystem of partners who can co-create with us to solve some of the problems we're facing. We've got to innovate -- we're at week zero -- this is the beginning of the IoT inflection point."

Bloch said Cisco wants to differentiate Australia from the rest of the world, taking advantage of the country's natural capabilities in resources and agriculture.

"The opportunity for the world, if Australia can get this right, is massive."

Cisco expects the combination of industry partners, ecosystem startups, and its own expert staff will achieve this.

The centre will be hosted by ATP Innovations at its Australian Technology Park in Sydney, with an innovation hub also based at UNSW. The university's hub will focus on cybersecurity, charged with ensuring that autonomous IoT devices are not hacked.

"University is often where ideas begin -- we also know that we have to have close links with the likes of Cisco, Data61, and the others, so as we're creating that research, we have a vision in mind to where it's going to go," Mark Hoffman, Dean of Engineering at UNSW, said.

"We have about 1,500 students studying computer science and engineering ... and we have this incredible resource of really bright people who are very motivated, very, very entrepreneurial and they're going to be the ones creating the industries of the future."

Also speaking at the launch in Sydney, Scott Hansen, Director-General NSW Department of Primary Industries, said that agriculture has always been innovative.

"Once upon a time agriculture was about the productivity of agriculture and its capacity to feed the cities was based on how many cows, how many crops you had -- we then modernised and moved to how many staff you could employ that dictated the productivity of your farm," he said.

"We've seen since industrialisation machines now replacing that manual labour. We see we're at the next wave of utilising technology to better utilise the natural resource assets we have to control the machines in a more efficient and effective manner."

Hansen said that if the knowledge and the technology that Australia has is utilised, it will have the opportunity to meet the increasing global demand for safe and healthy food.

"While we've always been strong collaborators, for us to capitalise on the next wave we need to be building new partnerships well outside our traditions," he said.

Bloch said that Cisco expects to see over 50 billion connected things by 2020, half with IP addresses, which will result in a very fundamental shift in economies.

"As we break into IoT, machine to machine communications is going to start really taking off -- now things are going to be connected to computers that can see more than we can see and that can think much faster than we can," he said.

Cisco previously opened an innovation centre focused on resource applications in Perth and plans to combine the Australian flagship centre with the Sydney one, with the company investing $15 million over five years to the Australian centres.

The tech giant has established 10 innovation centres in total, in Berlin, Barcelona, London, Montreal, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Toronto, and Songdo in South Korea.

Bloch said additional financial support has also come from the centre's partners.

Earlier this month, the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment initiated an inquiry into Australia's international competitiveness when it comes to innovation and creativity.

"Australia's international competitiveness in the post mining boom economy will depend on our capacity to promote and meet the workforce demands of innovative and creative industries," Committee chair Andrew Laming said.

The committee said it will also investigate factors that discourage closer partnerships between industry, in particular small and medium enterprises, the research sector, and education providers which will include intellectual property, technology transfer, and rapid commercialisation.

Laming also said that Australia is lagging behind other developed countries in terms of innovation performance, ranked at number 17 in the world when it comes to our ability to innovate.

In December, the federal government unveiled its AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda, aimed at incentivising innovation and entrepreneurship; rewarding risk taking; and promoting science, maths, and computing in schools.

The agenda covers over 20 measures focusing on four key areas: Culture and capital to help businesses embrace risk and incentivise early stage startup investment; collaboration to increase engagement between businesses, universities, and the research sector; talent and skills to train students for the jobs of the future and attract innovative talent from abroad; and for the government to lead by example by investing in, and using technology and data to deliver, better quality services.

"Australia is falling behind on measures of commercialisation and collaboration, consistently ranking last or second last among OECD countries for business-research collaboration," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the time. "Our appetite for risk is lower than in comparable countries, which means Australian startups and early stage businesses often fail to attract capital to grow."

Bloch said that Cisco is currently talking with the federal government to determine if there is to be future involvement from them with the centre.

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