Ravensdown poised for commercial launch of airborne soil testing within two years

Ravensdown fertiliser plant near Pahiatua. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Ravensdown, the farmer-owned fertiliser cooperative, expects its new aerial imaging tool to be commercially available within two years, opening the door to what it calls “soil testing from the sky”.

“We have almost finished the research; we will use the next two years to commercialise,” Mike Manning, general manager innovation & strategy at Ravensdown, told participants at the Federated Farmers national conference in Wellington yesterday. Several farmers asked when it would be available for on-farm use.

The Pioneering to Precision programme, led by Ravensdown, is a seven-year primary growth partnership with the Ministry for Primary Industries. It uses a Fenix Hyperspectral Imaging System that detects the unique signature of objects or land areas, based on a visible, near-infra-red and short-wave reflection scanned by the sensor from a plane.

According to Manning, a Cessna outfitted with a $700,000 camera flies 600 metres above hill country and is able to sense the soil fertility of the underlying land, as well as what vegetation is present. It converts the data into a nutrient content and concentrate map.

“This is world-leading technology… no one else in the world is anywhere near this. New Zealand is leading the world in this space,” he said.

A fertliser plan is then generated that targets specific areas that require nutrients. Instructions then get sent to the plane, allowing the system to release the fertiliser onto the right parts of the farm. Among other things, this minimises the discharge of nutrients into waterways and eliminates the need for a blanket application.

"The pilot flies the plane and the technology does the rest," Manning said. He noted that while the imaging tool wasn't developed to help farmers demonstrate regulatory compliance, it could be used for that.

"The data will be for the farmers and they will use it as they see fit," he said.

Manning said the system has other applications - in particular for forestry - as it is able to identify and classify different species of trees. "It can tell trees from tracks from tennis courts and types of trees - from one flyover."

According to the latest quarterly PGP progress report, the validation surveys for the imaging system – which test the robustness of remote sensing soil fertility predictions against physical soil fertility tests – “continue to look promising.”

Manning said final testing would be carried out in the spring and the commercialisation phase would then begin.

To date, around $7.8 million has been invested in the programme. Total funding will top $10 million. The programme is expected to generate additional export earnings of $120 million per year by 2030 and contribute a net economic benefit of $734 million to the New Zealand economy over the period 2020 to 2050.

Manning also talked about new dairy effluent technology called ClearTech, developed by Ravensdown and Lincoln University. The technology was unveiled in May and is currently being tested. It uses coagulants to bind effluent particles together and separate them from water, and is installed between the dairy shed and the effluent pond. According to Ravensdown, the process kills up to 99 percent of microorganisms such as E. coli. It also reduces smell and makes it possible to use the water for things like washing down the dairy shed.