Devices smart and cost-effective
Barry Sullivan, the project leader of the Australian National Banana Bunchy Top Virus Programme, told the MobileTech Conference in Rotorua in late March that he became involved when new incursions of the disease hit the industry in northern New South Wales. The disease nearly wiped out the Australian banana industry in 1924. In recent times the virus spread across a 360 kilometre area and 8,000 backyard inspections needed to be carried out. In one instance 200 infestations were found on just one farm.
“Initially we were photocopying basic maps and drawing on to them data we had gathered from driving around,” he said. “Then we started using hand-held GPS units.”
The GPS (global positioning system) units helped out a great deal in capturing good information, reducing problems which had been encountered where property details were found not to be correct.
“If we identified the virus on the wrong property it didn’t go down well with the owner,” he said.
There was also the issue of the amount of time data collectors had to spend back at the office transcribing details collected on maps during their visits to banana-growing properties.
“They had to type the data into spreadsheets and no one ever saw it again,” he said.
“Then when someone left, the response to the situation by those who replaced them was that the GPSs had been set up wrongly.”
Data capture evolved with the switch to PDAs (personal digital assistants i.e. handheld computers), and Barry Sullivan has built up the information collections forms used with them for the last eight years. Their use is estimated to be worth A$1,500 for each worker in time savings made in the office through not having to enter the data collected into a central system. And further development has meant that smart devices could be used.
“The technology is incredibly powerful, there are better quality cameras and longer memory,” he said.
Under a project jointly funded by the Federal Government and the Australian Banana Industry with funds from Horticulture Innovation Australia, a banana-growing area of northern New South Wales is being inspected for the disease. A total of 214 properties on hilly land are being inspected by just six people.
“They have to look at every leaf because bunchy top virus is spread by an aphid which we are trying to find earlier,” Barry said. “We need to know where the plant is and how many leaves on the plant are infected. And when plants are killed we need to record that as well as what chemical was used, the communication with the landowner and the date and time.”
This data used to be processed at the end of the month, requiring additional time and skills, with the loss of a lot of mapping information time because this was spent on crunching data. The solution was cloud-based data storage and management systems where photos are collected in forms and there is automated wireless transfer of data. “There’s the ability to work offline then send to the cloud later,” he said.
The set-up and design has been made more intuitive and data can be secured and filtered out if and when required.
“We can monitor staff now and see what information they’re collecting,” he said. “It’s the perfect model to capture data.”
And all this information can also easily be provided to banana growers as part of efforts to train them to spot the hard-tosee signs of the virus.
Individual banana farms have been categorised from ‘A’ to ‘E’ with ‘A’ properties not infected, ‘B’ farms inspected once a year and those with a ‘C’ categorisation inspected every month, Barry said. Drones are now being investigated as an easier and more cost effective way of constantly monitoring ‘A’ properties.
Harvey Ryan, the chief executive of Brisbane software company Konnect, which partnered with the banana industry to develop the system, told the conference it was an ideal end-to-end solution for use in field operations, as staff could be fully informed.
“There are precision drawing tools and sophisticated forms to collect and edit attributable data, which ensures quality and validity,” he said. “You can dispatch work and monitor field activities in real time.”
This has meant significant efficiencies and cost savings.
“And you have a fully informed workforce so they don’t do the wrong thing,” he said.
With an average of 20% to 25% savings seen in operational budgets this more than covers the system’s cost.