Robotics, satellite data, remote sensing projects short-listed for NZ Aerospace award

New technologies for monitoring water quality and improving outcomes for farmers are key themes among finalists in this year's NZ Aerospace Challenge. The brief for the challenge was to design solutions to identify, monitor or measure water or soil pollution using satellite data and unmanned aircraft technology.

Robotics, satellite data, remote sensing projects short-listed for NZ Aerospace award
Robotics, satellite data, remote sensing projects short-listed for NZ Aerospace award

Robotics, satellite data, remote sensing projects short-listed for NZ Aerospace award

New technologies for monitoring water quality and improving outcomes for farmers are key themes among finalists in this year's NZ Aerospace Challenge. The brief for the challenge was to design solutions to identify, monitor or measure water or soil pollution using satellite data and unmanned aircraft technology.

Agricultural engineering teacher Majeed Safa has an interest in modelling and simulation in agriculture, and is joined by a plant scientist, a geographic information scientist and a digital agricultural scientist. His Lincoln University team, one of six Canterbury finalists, has been working since 2014 on developing an app to allow farmers to calculate how much fertiliser to apply to any given area of the farm, in real-time.

Safa said it started by accident after the team discovered differences in pasture temperature based on nitrogen content. Various projects using thermal images to measure nitrogen content were then conducted, and models tested. The next step is to develop an app so farmers can use this same model to measure pasture on their farms. Farmers he had spoken to were very excited about the idea, he said.

"Farmers at the moment have to test their soil, take samples and send them off for a recommendation, all of which costs money and is time-consuming. Right now they have no other choice." Safa said as well as being costly, the current process was not very accurate. Because of urine patches and other variables, it was very hard to apply optimum nitrogen.

An app, based on thermal and satellite imagery, would allow a farmer to hone in on a specific corner of a paddock and find out how much fertiliser to apply based on current conditions. "To remove all the manual, sampling, lab process, it could be the future of New Zealand, world agriculture. It's like our dream, it would make farmers' lives much easier."

At the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), a team has been working to create a similarly user-friendly system, to measure on-farm water and pollutant movement. James Griffiths said satellite and UAV technology were used to calculate nitrogen inputs, outputs, and subsequent transport of nitrate from farmland to waterways, with a view to improving water quality. 

"Water quality may be partially restored through more effective management of livestock, farm effluents, and fertilizers," he said. "This will help farmers to strike the balance of productive farming and environmental stewardship, by identifying the location and time where excess nitrogen was transported to waterways."

A team of students at Christ's College is also in the running for its project measuring flow rates on Canterbury's braided rivers using satellite imaging systems, with a view to expanding to smaller rivers currently unmetered. Satellite remote sensing are used to determine river flow rates from orbit, enabling the wetted surface areas and volumetric flow rate of braided rivers to be calculated.

Project director Andrew Taylor said there had been wide student involvement in the project across a wide variety of curriculum areas, and had injected considerable enthusiasm into their learning, from science to business innovation. Based in Taranaki, Drones Technologies NZ Ltd are focused on creating a near real-time model of water health along river corridors, accessible to research partners and the public.

Using drone sampling technology would increase the speed and range at which scientists obtain water samples while reducing cost and effort. Christchurch-based Kea Aerospace is building a small-scale version of their unmanned high-altitude solar aircraft, capable of capturing high-quality and cost-effective image data to measure soil and water pollution, as well as a raft of other uses.

Their solar powered fixed-wing aircraft would be the largest unmanned aircraft designed in the Southern Hemisphere, and fly in the stratosphere to collect high resolution multi-spectral imagery.  With experience in remote sensing, Landpro has been working on interactive software that uses data from multiple sources and runs spatial models for analysis.

The Cromwell-based team have focused on suspended sediment produced from agriculture, and how it affects water quality. Samplair, a start-up of mainly university students, is developing a long-range drone service for fast and cost-effective physical soil and water sampling. A developer of visual geoscience and modelling software, Seequent is developing a cloud-based and global remote sensing solution for monitoring lake water health.

The eight finalists will take part in a demo and pitchfest in Christchurch and the winner will be announced by Valentin Merino Villeneuve, Head Of Airbus Defence and Space Australasia and Hon Dr Megan Woods, Minister of Research, Science and Innovation at an awards event on Friday October 18. The winner will receive $30,000, Airbus data vouchers and six months of commercialisation support.