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Sweet innovation for Australian Sugar Industry

The Herbert Resource Information Centre uses GIS and location-based technologies to yield improved efficiency and productivity for the Australian sugar industry

The Herbert Valley cane growing region in tropical North Queensland, Australia is at the forefront of innovative sugar industry practices. It utilises GIS and location-based technologies not solely for farming of cane, but across the entire supply chain, from farm to factory, to strengthen productivity, increase yield and drive increased profits for the whole industry.

In1996, the Herbert sugar industry’s four key stakeholders —Wilmar Sugar Australia; Herbert Cane Productivity Service; CANEGROWERS; and Hinchinbrook Shire Council — collaborated to establish the Herbert Resource Information Centre (HRIC). The HRIC was tasked with providing GIS services and capacity-building to the local community and sugar industry.

A world-class solution
One of the HRIC’s core business solutions was the development and implementation of a Harvest Management System (HMS). The HMS provides real-time visibility that ensures every part of the supply chain is synchronised and that all entities have access to current and reliable information on every cane harvester’s status, the area and tonnage of cane cut and harvester performance metrics.

At the heart of the HMS is a secure, user-friendly, Webbased interface created using ESRI’s ArcGIS Server solution. The interface enables stakeholders to pull particularised reports and web maps to generate specific spatial intelligence.

A key data requirement for the HMS is the cane block layer; a GIS layer of the cane block boundaries which contains attributes such as; cane variety, the planting date, block dimensions, ownership details and a record of past yields (in tonnes).

Combined with onground measurements, this farm management information system provides an accurate pre-harvest estimate of the tonnes of cane present in each block. The cane estimate, along with information about the total field area and tonnes of cane to be harvested, provides the industry with critical information for planning the harvest, and allows it to make crucial decisions such as; setting the harvest start date and expected season length; arranging harvesting and transport schedules; setting capital and operational budgets; and refining marketing aspects.

As part of the HMS, real-time spatial information gathered from the harvesters is processed with the cane block data. All cane harvesters have an on-board computer, GPS device and modem fitted which together records and transmits the current status of the harvester (either cutting, maneuvering, moving, or stopped). Data points from cane harvesters are automatically collected every 30 seconds and are then transmitted to HRIC. Every evening this data is combined to give an accurate picture of the blocks harvested, as well as the total area harvested.

Accurate block harvest information is particularly important in terms of grower equity. Given cane sugar content is typically at its highest level during mid-harvest, harvesting at this time can provide greater returns. With only a limited number of harvester groups available at any one time, the groups must be rotated to ensure an even distribution among fields and farmers. Also, with harvest operations highly susceptible to the variable weather that occurs throughout a season, these equity measures spread weather-associated risks across all farmers and cane blocks.

Data fed back from the harvesters during the harvest is also used to regularly reassess yield estimates, which again affects decision-making further up the supply chain. The HMS allows for ongoing re-calculation of how many tonnes have been harvested and where those tonnes are located in the district. This critical information allows informed decisions to be made regarding harvesting plans, rail transport logistics, in estimating the end of season date, and sugar marketing.

One of the prime advantages of HRIC’s HMS is that it is both broad enough to capture highly-detailed data from across the supply chain and sufficiently nuanced to enable stakeholders to focus solely on the information relevant to their business operations.

For example, harvesting companies can access information on current cane harvester locations and activity; while millers can use harvested block information to update their transport schedules and plans and manage the daily harvest and transport operations.

Errors in the consignment of cane from the field can also be more easily identified through the HMS. Consigning (allocating) cane tonnes harvested to the wrong block leads to errors in future productivity analysis, such as the productivity of particular varieties of cane on certain soil types. Accurate consignment leads to more precise and accurate productivity reports for cane growers and millers.

The HMS also provides real-time feedback via a system of management reports and intuitive dashboards and Web maps that ensures settings can be fine-tuned with immediate and positive feedback loops in the cane supply chain.

For Wilmar Sugar harvesters, measures of harvester speed and pour rates (a measure of cane throughput) are also provided as reports and Web maps. This enables the company to ensure harvesters are operating at an optimum speed and further contributes to increased productivity and future yields.

Post-harvest, the data collected through the HMS continues to drive better outcomes for the industry as it is ‘mined’ and analysed to identify trends and patterns. This value-adding process has already started to pay dividends for the industry.

One recent data-mining project has provided, for the first time, proof of the relationship between cane harvester cutting rate and future productivity (cane yield).The analysis found the Herbert sugar industry could increase productivity by around 10% by simply controlling the speed of the harvester to industry best practice recommendations. Given the size of the Herbert district sugar crop, this is worth more than A$20 million (U$18.8 approx). These results are expected drive further research in this space and could transform cane harvesting practices throughout Australia.

Looking to the future
The Herbert sugar region is one of the four Wilmar Sugar cane districts in Australia, each with their own cane mapping, estimating, harvest and transport management, consignment, and productivity reporting processes. On the back of six highly successful years in the Herbert region, the HMS was, this year, rolled out by HRIC into the other Wilmar Sugar districts. It is intended that the HMS will provide the basis that will standardise processes across the districts and maximise the benefits offered by Enterprise GIS technologies.

HRIC is also looking to link the HMS to its cane harvester yield monitoring solution. This solution is currently connected to around half of the harvester fleet and provides data for farm management and agronomic services. Integrating this into the HMS would feed real-time tonnage data from cane harvesters and provide a real-time figure of ongoing cane yield. This would replace the relatively rudimentary estimates currently being used.

The Herbert sugar district will also build on a recent investment in its own GPS base station network. Supported by the HRIC Enterprise GIS infrastructure, further integration for all of these technologies is planned that will link the agronomic and supply chain systems. The HRIC is now moving down this path by providing real-time monitoring and support for fertiliser delivery and real time automated yield monitoring to the industry. In the future, this solution will lead to vastly improved harvester tracking accuracy — to within 2 cm — and pave the way for automised harvester control.

Another future enhancement will be driven by HRIC’s utilisation of Esri’s new GeoEvent Processor. This will lead to a more professional and functional dashboard without reliance on internal customisation and programming. Finally, there is also a plan to roll-out tracking technology integration for haul-outs. Currently only present in Wilmar Sugar vehicles, the technology monitors round-trip times for haul-outs from the field to the rail system. This capacity will help optimise equipment tolerance and reduce maintenance costs and downtime.

Raymond De Lai
, Centre Manager, Herbert Resource
Information Centre,
[email protected]