Environment & Ag Tech

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Plant, animal and ecosystem health are fundamental to both the state’s environment and economy.

Australia is home to one of the most diverse flora and fauna in the world and we have a mandate to protect it by better understanding our impact on the environment. At the same time, a growing population requires smarter approaches to farming. Next-generation technology is allowing for efficient and real-time monitoring of air and water quality, improved harvesting efficiency, and quality assurance across the food chain. 

At the heart of it all are smart sensors, and NSW universities are at the forefront of smart sensing research, deploying the latest advances in photonic and chemical sciences to create sensors that are cheaper, smaller, more portable, more sensitive and require less power. 

Partnering with the NSSN, companies can access expertise and technology from across NSW’s leading universities and gain an enduring competitive advantage. Some of the exciting R&D projects already taking place throughout the network include:

Measuring soil nutrient content (e.g. moisture content, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels) accurately and in real time is a grand challenge for agriculture. Researchers at the University of Newcastle are working on detecting contaminants in soil and creating a high-resolution map in a range of environmental media. Methods such as electrochemical sensors and infrared spectroscopy are used, enabled by smartphone-based applications. This provides real-time smart metrics to help farmers make decisions that improve overall yield efficiency for their crops. 

The Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR), headquartered at the University of Sydney, are pioneers in robotics and artificial intelligence for AgTech applications. Autonomous systems, equipped with a variety of sensors, are being tested to patrol farms and monitor vegetation health and optimise yield procedures.  

Livestock monitoring is also enabled by autonomous systems which will be equipped with thermal and motion sensors to measure the health of cattle, a task which is often only done a few times per year. With ever-increasing demand from a rapidly growing population, the agriculture industry is dependent on revolutionary changes enabled by these smart, sensor-based technologies. 

Working with the NSSN simplifies the process of engaging with universities by creating a single point-of-contact for the leading research-intensive universities in NSW. A team of NSSN researchers at the University of Sydney are working with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) to improve air quality sensing in and around Sydney.

In recent years, increasing numbers of motor vehicles and higher population densities have raised air quality concerns in NSW. Low cost particle counters deployed over a massive network have emerged as a powerful new technology in detecting particulate matter in the air. Photonics researchers at the NSSN are engineering, testing and validating this technology to help the OEH better understand and deploy this technology.

Access to cutting-edge research equipment can be difficult to arrange without university partners, and with over 50 centres of excellence, collaborative research centres and industrial training centres spread across the NSSN, access to world-class equipment is readily available.  

Navigating the ever-changing envirotech and agtech space is challenging, working with universities should not be

With the support of the NSW Government, the NSSN is your one-stop shop for multi-disciplinary expertise and technology. 

To find out how the NSSN can help solve your challenges, please contact Tomonori Hu at (02) 9351 6049 or tomonori.hu@nssn.org.au


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Air Quality Sensing


The Challenge

In recent years, increasing numbers of motor vehicles and higher population densities have raised air quality concerns across the state. Due to sudden environmental changes, ozone concentrations in NSW recently increased beyond acceptable levels, creating health concerns for the local community. Ready access to accurate air quality data can help government and communities take action to prevent and mitigate air quality degradation.


The Solution

With funding from the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage (OEH), NSSN researchers at the University of Sydney (Ben Eggleton, Tomonori Hu and Alvaro Casas-Bedoya) developed low-cost optical particle sensors that use light to detect particles in the air.

Building on existing technologies, the team developed compact/portable sensors with a high degree of accuracy. Such sensors could be deployed in large arrays to provide more comprehensive information on air quality in real-time.   

Engineering, testing and validating this technology was carried out in labs at the University of Sydney and in the field in Sydney. 

The project is also drawing upon NSSN expertise in integrated photonics that enable nano-scale sensors. This innovative research will lead to further miniaturisation of sensors that will fit inside devices like smart phones, enabling citizens to measure local air quality and feed that information into a mass network of deployed air quality sensors.  


The Result

This collaboration gave the OEH and the University of Sydney a better understanding on how to interpret the data from low-cost sensors and has led to further collaboration. The objective of this ongoing work is to make further improvements to the sensitivity, environmental robustness and energy efficiency of the sensor. 

The project also feeds into the NSSN Living Lab - a comprehensive network of air quality sensors across the Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong regions, that draws upon the extensive resources and expertise of NSSN member universities.  




Wildlife Monitoring


The Challenge

Land-clearing, logging and housing development were leading to the destruction of koala habitats on the NSW mid- and north-coasts. The NSW Department of Industry sought novel environmental and field-based sensing techniques to more effectively monitor the populations and movements of this iconic Australian species.

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The Solution

The NSSN linked researchers at the University of Sydney's Australian Centre for Field Robotics and the NSW Department of Industry to develop a technology to better understand the population and movement of koalas. Sensors that collected acoustic information inside koala habitats were run through a machine-learning algorithm to decipher characteristic sounds from the animal's calls. The project resulted in a detection accuracy 50% greater than conventional methods for monitoring population.  

The pilot project also deployed novel visual sensing techniques that captured images of the unique backsides of individual koalas to provide additional population monitoring. 

The project utilised existing imagery and audio sensing technologies in conjunction with machine learning and computer vision techniques for data analysis.


The Result

The project resulted in improved accuracy of koala calls and reduced the number of false positives. It led to enhanced techniques for the use of smart sensing in wildlife detection, which can be deployed in a range of settings. There are future plans to work with the NSW Department of Industry and NSW Environmental Protection Authority to advance the study further by using location data to map koala populations. 




Water Quality 

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The Challenge 

A significant number of sites in NSW are reported to have contaminated groundwater and there is a clear need for rapid onsite monitoring of organic pollutants. Perfluoro compounds (PFOS & PFAS), used heavily in firefighting foams, are known to exist in the water tables around airports and defence bases. These toxic compounds can readily dissolve in liquid and leach into drinking and recreational water.  


The Solution


Researchers at UNSW, led by Dr Alex Donald, are currently developing methods to sense toxic persistent organic pollutants that have spread through groundwater from Williamtown RAAF. The goal is to develop next-generation mass spectrometry that will be small and portable enough to deliver accurate, real-time readings in the field, and thus reduce the cost, expense and delays of transporting field samples to a lab for analysis. 

Once developed, this novel ion sensing technology can be used to sense many different organic chemicals, including persistent organic pollutants, explosives, narcotics, and chemical weapons, almost simultaneously. 

This project is ongoing and is leading to flow-on projects with the wine and grape industry, as well as asbestos monitoring.