Using technology as both a tool and subject for agricultural education should enable the industry to capture the next generation of industry change makers. In this article we look at the use of virtual reality by Stuart Barber at the University of Melbourne to improve access to animal handling experience. Salah Sukkarieh, Director of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, recently presented at the Crawford Fund Conference and gave examples of the use of agricultural robotics for high school lessons on programming.
Technology for Agricultural Education
One of the greatest conveniences that technology has afforded us has been the ability to reduce distance down to a series of electrical pulses beamed to a satellite or tower and back for a casual chat or video call. Contacting a family member, friend or colleague thousands of miles away no longer represents a ping (lag time) of many days to weeks as it was for a simple letter. We are now so accustomed to rapid communication, that satellite feeds on live crosses with even a few seconds delay seem awkward, or online games with just milliseconds of lag become unplayable and frustrating. Even more impressive than video calling your dog and watching it react confused to your calling its name, is the ability to remotely control trains and trucks in iron ore mines in remote Western Australia. These 400 tonne behemoth trucks and the many thousand tonne trains are controlled from facilities located in Perth. Such has been the incredible impact of modern communications technology.
As mentioned in the previous article on attracting youth into agriculture, one barrier to an understanding and interest in agriculture is its distance to the highly urbanised centres in Australia. You may recall that Australia sits 18th in the world as one of the most highly urbanised countries with nearly 90% of the population living in cities. Studies have shown (unsurprisingly) that students in inner city areas are far less likely to take up agricultural careers purely because they were never exposed to the opportunities presented in the industry.
Technology and Education
Connecting those two ideas presents a seemingly simple yet novel solution: capitalising on communications advancements to help break down those barriers of distance (as attempted by this here organisation AgriEducate). The possibilities stretch as far as our creativity will allow. Imagine extending the classic bean sprouts grown in primary school to remotely controlling robots in a field right in front of you to practice coding skills. Or how about using virtual reality to really put yourself into the shoes of a farmer, agronomist, animal handler, shearer or any of the professions within the industry. Even a simple 360-degree photo is now readily achievable with relatively cheap and high quality consumer grade products. Well both of these concepts are currently in use by Salah and Stuart.
Coding with Agricultural Robotics
At the recent Crawford Fund Conference in Canberra, Salah Sukkarieh spoke about the role and the current progress the ACFR was having with agricultural robotics in development agriculture. The Digital Farmhand, the new robot developed for small hold farmers, is a low cost row crop robot aimed towards helping small scale farmers in Australia & overseas to perform crop analytics and automation of simple farming tasks.
As part of the brief, the group asked themselves:
How do we go into rural schools and teach robotics and coding, put it into practice and in turn develop STEM knowledge?
The motivation for rural education focusing on robotics and coding stemmed from an awareness about the current misconception of agriculture and breaking the ‘myth’ about studying agriculture to be a farmer. In fact, many talented engineering and mechatronics students are unaware of the possibilities for robotics, automation and AI in agriculture.
With this in mind, the ACFR team took their two wheeled robot into schools and used programs such as Scratch and others to enable students to direct the robot around the field. The program benefits the students through improved understanding of key coding and robotics concepts while improving the awareness about opportunities in agriculture.
Virtual Reality in Tertiary Education
The possibilities don’t just end there. One practical example of the technology employed for educational purposes is at the University of Melbourne Veterinary School by Senior Lecturer Stuart Barber. For the past few years, Stuart and the team have been developing a wide ranging selection of 360-degree photos and video of various animal production systems. These photos enable students to put themselves into the shoes of a sheep drafter, on farm large animal veterinarian and dairy farmer, to name a few, across different production areas. The team now has 11 different sites across tropical, temperate, and Mediterranean climates in Australia and New Zealand. They act as tools for Stuart to illustrate correct handling and positioning techniques while providing those without a connection to rural areas, the insight into a range of on-farm situations throughout different seasons of the year.
The term ‘common sense’ is often mentioned as something hopefully inherent to everyone irrespective of upbringing and lifestyle. Yet what is common sense to someone from an agricultural background might be incredibly foreign to others who have grown up in the city their whole life and vice versa. The use of this immersive technology by Stuart enables him to strip back the frequently assumed knowledge of rural common sense and prevent the possible misunderstanding and confusion. Essentially making the whole process more attractive and welcoming to all, regardless of upbringing.
Going further than just pretty (but incredibly useful) 360-degree pictures, Stuart and the team have captured temporal variations in pasture levels from season to season. Pasture management is critical in ensuring good animal health from a nutritious balanced diet. Yet pasture growth and maintenance is incredibly different both within and between each region around Australia. For example, the strongly Mediterranean climate in parts of WA result in a summer-autumn feed gap yet an abundance of feed during the winter months. For someone from the temperate regions of Victoria or NSW, such a cycle would seem incredibly bizarre and difficult to manage. Yet the time-based series of 360 and VR tours enables students to capture, first hand, that variability.
Stuart has used the technology with primary school aged children to let them explore the world of agriculture and animal production of their own volition and interest up to tertiary.
However, with all technology and systems there are constraints that could limit functionality. For example, while 360-degree photos just require image stitching and fewer images captured, an immersive VR experience requires video footage captured, processed and stitched in every direction. One piece of new equipment recently used by Stuart uses 14 GoPros mounted on a 360 Rize frame capturing 8k resolution (8 times higher than 1080p HD). At a recent shoot, the setup produced almost 100Gb of data in a single hour.
Moreover, if we were to ever live stream a VR feed (entirely possible and relatively easy these days), it would necessitate a very high quality and reliable mobile or Wi-Fi internet connection. The current data drought facing many farmers and primary producers around Australia would limit this type of education option as an opportunity, and is already limiting improved production and data analysis techniques (read more on the #datadrought here).
While there may be some constraints to data collection, processing and dissemination to interested students and teachers, the principle and educational precedent remains. This type of technology in schools, shops (imagine VR banana production in your local supermarket), universities and even the workplace would help capture a whole raft of people who have never been exposed to agriculture. The technology can not only break down distance barriers, but also the social and life style barriers that develop from where we grow up, live and work and prohibit involvement in an exciting and ever changing industry.