For decades, central-west Queensland grazier Neil Rogers has spent the first two hours each day the same way.
Wake up, jump in the ute, and drive to each water tank on the 43,000-acre Toobrack Station, south of Longreach, to check vital water levels.
It’s an expensive and time-consuming chore that’s been a fact of life for the longest time.
But not anymore. These days, his routine looks a lot different, courtesy of some little boxes sitting on top of his tanks.
“We get up in the morning and look at our iPad and go, ‘Here are our water levels’. We know where to turn taps on, we know if we’ve got to go and check something,” Mr Rogers said.
Bridging the divide
Agricultural technology, or agtech, is nothing new, but far away from the resources and industry of the major cities, the innovations of a small outback startup are popping up on remote stations.
OPS Australia is a Longreach-based startup that collaborates with local graziers to develop technology that monitors water, fences, and gates.
The company was recently awarded $99,560 under the state government’s Advance Queensland Ignite Ideas Fund, which supports regionally based innovators and entrepreneurs.
CEO Andrew Barton said, based on two major rural events, outback agtech companies were few and far between.
“Last year in May, there was Beef Week [Beef Australia]and apparently there were something like 70 agtech vendors, both in cattle solutions and water-monitoring solutions,” Mr Barton said.
“But then when you come to Westech [field days]OPS was the only agtech vendor there providing smart monitoring and control solutions, and the drive between Rocky and Barcy [Barcaldine] is only a few hours, but there seems to be a terrific divide.
Mr Barton said that was because the outback could be a difficult place to cater for.
“It’s not an easy environment. The sun is tough, the roads are tough, and the people are tough,” he said.
“A coastal company that puts a solution together that works perfectly well on the coast typically has an issue when it moves out west.
Being able to rely on locally developed technology for solutions to locally specific issues is something that Mr. Rogers welcomes.
“When they first came up and talked about it, we all sort of went, ‘Oh technology,'” Mr Rogers said.
“Then we started talking about what they were going to do, and how the world is going ahead now, and it’s big positives all the way.
Longreach State High School student Lachie Horne, 16, said he had been interested in IT and computers for a while now but faced a lack of opportunities to gain experience in the outback.
That changed when his schoolmate Harrison Moore told him there was somewhere in town where he could sink his teeth into software and web development.
“It’s very surprising. That’s the problem when you’re living out in a rural place,” Lachie said.
“You don’t have all the opportunities, and I think this has been a really good opportunity to get that experience because you’d never expect it out here in a remote community.”
Lachie spends his time working on a web portal that gives property owners access to their water levels from the comfort of their home and notifies them if those levels are dropping.
“I thought it’d be very good to get some of that experience, so I ended up joining OPS, and that’s been helpful for giving me that experience and letting me learn about web development and get into that job field,” he said.
“For locals, by locals” is something that’s core to Mr Barton’s vision for his startup.
“We’re just continuing to find good people within the central west, be they electrical engineers, high school students. There’s a whole range, but we’re actually building up the team with terrific local people,” Mr Barton said.
Convergence of tech and reality
Chad Renando, a University of Southern Queensland research fellow in Innovation Ecosystems at the Rural Economies Center of Excellence, said graziers often encountered technology without understanding the nuances of the challenge.
“We’re seeing people on farms learning the technology and moving into that space and being providers themselves, as well as people who are the technologists actually getting out there on-farm or in the community setting up locations,” Dr Renando said.
“The actual execution requires you to maintain it and be able to support it, as well as handling the challenges that are inherent too — remote location, connectivity, and internet infrastructure.
“We need more of that.”