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Mon May 31 22:10:36 EST 2004

CRCA Media Release  04/23

June 1, 2004


Australia's $3 billion wine industry is poised to gain a fresh technical edge over its global rivals with the development of a low-cost system to predict the water needs and disease risk in growing vines.

The system is based on a unique micro-climate and moisture sensor developed by the CRC for microTechnology and Motorola Australia.

The sensor - and similar technologies it - will be showcased at a major national conference on "Converging Technologies in Agriculture and the Environment", to be held in Melbourne from 9-12 August 2004.

Already operating in a vineyard in Victoria's Yarra Valley, the information collected by the sensor helps predict disease outbreaks with unprecedented accuracy, enabling grape growers to spray only those vines that most need it, says CRC microTechnology Chief Executive Mr Clive Davenport.

The sensor is also equipped with a soil moisture meter which allows the grower to plan irrigations according to the needs of the crop, leading to potentially large savings in water and reduced risk of salinity.

Known as MEMS - micro electrical mechanical systems - the tiny sensor chips measure only 4mm square. They are capable of measuring wind speed and direction, temperature, light, humidity, as well as soil moisture and leaf wetness. The whole system is currently subject to an international patent.

"The sensor nodes are distributed across a vineyard and send their information by wireless link to a gateway unit which downloads it to a computer, which analyses it and provides reports to the grower," Mr Davenport explains. 

"A unique feature is that the sensors can be laid out in any pattern so long as each sensor is within radio range of at least one other. This means the network can be designed to suit individual farm layout and topography. New sensors can be added or removed as needed."

Mr Davenport says a primary target of the sensors is the fungal rot Botrytis, the scourge of the southern Australian grape growing industry. By warning of conditions favourable to the growth of Botrytis, the sensor enables the grower to take preventative action, targetting the areas most at risk - so avoiding heavy losses and also reducing the use of chemicals.

The soil moisture array consists of three sensor modules buried at different depths in the soil.  Being low-cost and easy to install, the soil moisture sensors will bring precision irrigation scheduling within the reach of many grape growers, leading to potentially massive water savings across the industry, Mr Davenport predicts.

In the next stage, it is envisaged the soil sensors will be connected directly to watering valves, making irrigation automatic whenever the soil dries out.

"While other climate sensors are available, they cost in the thousands of dollars, which puts them beyond the reach of the typical grower," he says.
"Our sensors will cost only a fraction of that, making irrrigation scheduling a reality for the wider farming community."

There is currently high interest in commercialising the sensor technology, with at least three Australian companies presently interested in licensing it.

"The successful trials of the microsensor network have helped identify a clear path to a new, relevant and useful commercial product to keep Australian agriculture world competitive," Mr Davenport says.

"The research addresses National Research Priority 3, frontier technologies for building and transforming Australian industries."

Dr Andrew Hamilton, a senior researcher with the Victorian Department of Primary Industries says the data gathered by the microsensors has enabled scientists to develop a method to accurately predict the likelihood of fungal diseases breaking out on the grape bunches under certain climate conditions.

The soil sensors have also provided invaluable information about soil moisture changes over time, enabling a better match between water and fertiliser applied and the needs of the growing vine.

Mr Pat Eardley, global software group site director for Motorola Australia, says his company has been working with CRC microTechnology on the project since 2000, and considers the system has great potential for monitoring environmental conditions at the micro scale.

"Most of the currently commercially-available sensors are prohibitively expensive, while their large size makes them unsuitable for microclimate monitoring," he says.

Converging Technologies Conference

The CRC for microTechnology and Department of Primary Industries,
Government of Victoria will host a Sir Mark Oliphant Conference 2004 --International Frontiers of Science and Technology on "Converging Technologies for Agriculture and Environment". 

The conference will take place 9-12 August 2004, at the Duxton Hotel, 328 Flinders Street. Melbourne.

The conference is supported by the Commonwealth Government through the Department of Education, Science and Training under the Innovation Access Program and administered by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

More information:
Mr Clive Davenport, CEO, CRC microTechnology	03 9214 8557
								0409 760 885
Mr Damian Lismore, CRC microTechnology		03 9214 8557
CRCA media, Prof. Julian Cribb				0418 639 245

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