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Testing agritech with farmers first, pays off for Wagga Wagga startup

Poor connectivity is the challenge, Wagga Wagga based wireless networking startup Zetifi have set out to solve, affecting two thirds of Australian farms. Teaming up with local grain grower, Andrew Dumaresq to trial technology on-farm has been key in maximising its value to the end user – the farmer.

Zetifi Wagga Wagga Photography by Jackie Cooper

Having a clear path to impact is fundamental for agritech development and on-farm adoption.

For Zetifi Founder and CEO, Dan Winson, collaborating with a progressive farmer to test his wireless networking products only 20km from his head office in Wagga Wagga, NSW ensures he delivers products that are proven on-farm.

And for grain grower Andrew Dumaresq, the chance to test products in the field and deliver feedback to improve portable connectivity and streamline agritech has ensured his mixed farming operation, ‘Gregadoo Park,’ maximises available technology.

Both Dan and Andrew agree that startups testing prototypes with farmers first speeds up the development cycle and results in products that the market really needs.

Launched in 2018, Zetifi develops and supports wireless network devices to bring high-speed connectivity to people in regional areas experiencing limited or sub-standard voice, video, and internet services.

As a network engineer and industry lecturer, Dan brings a nuanced perspective of the rural connectivity challenge and the conditions farmers face. “We sat down with Andrew and explained all the areas we thought had market potential and the products we were developing and said if you’ve got suggestions as to how we can do things better, we’re very open to that,” said Dan.

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“Early on we were struggling to get the elevation needed for a portable mast to send the wireless signal out across the paddock in a way that can be quickly deployed, so Andrew welded up a cage to put the mast in.

“I looked at it and said, ‘This is over-engineered, you don’t need something this big’ and Andrew said, ‘Do you understand how big cows are, and how much they like to scratch up against things?’ And every other farmer who’s seen the prototype has said it’s absolutely perfect,” said Dan.

“With Andrew’s help we’ve tweaked it a bit to make it easier to ship and now we’re looking at building hundreds of them. Without it, we’d be struggling to dig holes in the ground, pour concrete and then stand around waiting for it to set.”

On-farm trials help inform agritech developers

Having a trial farm nearby removes ‘teething issues’ before the products are launched and speeds up the development cycle, Dan explained. But earlier in the company’s development he went further afield to test his ideas.

“Wally Newman in Newdegate, Western Australia was one of the first to give us a run. He invested quite substantially in a farm wide network, 20 cameras and lots of Wi-Fi covering the property and he took a chance on us because he saw the value in the technology,” said Dan.

“We did all of that job remotely and I also went to field days and took orders and then just did things that weren’t necessarily scalable, but they gave me the opportunity to understand what I needed to do to build a scaleable company. So it’s putting yourself out there initially.”

Working with Andrew has also expanded Dan’s knowledge of farming technology and where Zetifi can assist.

“Andrew’s farm is run with controlled traffic, variable rate and other practices that are becoming standard, so understanding how those signals can be received by the machinery and other options for that has been critical.

“Rather than sending a terrestrial signal over a radio tower, which is a significant investment in infrastructure, being able to provide internet connectivity to the tractor or to the sprayer so it can bring that signal from a virtual reference station is going to be a big part of our strategy moving forward. So having Andrew’s insights into what that means from a practical point of view has been really useful.”

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Bridging the digital divide with greater connectivity in rural Australia

Andrew said Zetifi’s solutions have boosted the farm’s connectivity to the point that it can support technology such as autosteer and remote diagnostics. Despite being only 10km from the nearest Telstra base station the farm regularly experienced drop-outs, a situation common to many in rural Australia.

“Dan’s technology is filling a lot of gaps in rural Australia. Farmers create a lot of wealth and yet two-thirds of them don’t have the coverage or connectivity that cities do, which is one of the major restrictions to the take-up of technology,” explained Andrew.

“If I’ve got a tractor broken down in the paddock and the company can hook on to the machine via internet and see what the problem is, it’s better than sending a mechanic out at great expense to say, ‘It needs a spare part’ and driving back to town.”

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Andrew admits ‘farmers are time poor’ but in order to free up time, you’ve got to be willing to try new things. He added, “If you’ve got that connectivity as a starting base, you’re only limited by your imagination as to what you can do.”

Dan credits evokeAG. as being ‘absolutely critical’ to Zetifi’s growth, connecting him with machinery manufacturer CaseIH to trial technology on the company’s test farm, and AuctionsPlus, which uses Zetifi to deliver the connectivity they need for on-farm auctions.

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“That’s really driven our portable connectivity solutions development and the R&D around that to make sure that we could actually deliver it. It’s also led to a number of sales, which has helped us build credibility to show we’re a company worth backing for investors,” said Dan.

A meeting at evokeAG. 2020 between Zetifi and the Birchip Cropping Group led to a joint project to fix a telecommunications black spot between Birchip and Sea Lake in Victoria’s Wimmera region, giving the company a chance to deploy new technology and prove it could work in the field.

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“That ongoing relationship with Birchip Cropping Group has meant independent, respected researchers are testing our technology and demonstrating that it actually works at scale, and that’s been essential to Zetifi in applying for government grants,” said Dan.

What’s next for the partnership? Andrew now enjoys download speeds of up to 200Mbps via a Zetifi network that incorporates Starlink satellite internet. Starlink is a new satellite internet technology that uses low-earth orbit satellites to provide high-speed, low latency internet with unlimited data. The service is currently only available in northern Victoria and southern New South Wales but is expected to be more widely available in other parts of Australia by late 2021.

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Zetifi was one of six telecommunications providers awarded Federal Government grants under the $2million Alternative Voice Services trials program (AVST) to identify new ways to deliver voice services, assess their effectiveness, and identify alternative solutions to provide better services and functionality in rural and remote locations.

They’re both enthused about the rapid developments in agritech and hopeful that it’ll encourage more young people back to agriculture, a move they say has already been boosted by the increase in teleworking as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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