Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Southland tech firm takes GPS to next level

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Implications for farm systems when accuracy is down to mere centimetres.
Space Operations NZ director Robin O’Neill says the new technology will open up possibilities for new technology, such as driverless tractors.
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Tracking down elusive water pipes or determining the exact location of a dodgy boundary line will be achieved with greater accuracy in the future, thanks to new GPS technology launched in Southland.

Robin O’Neill’s company Space Operations NZ in Invercargill is the service provider for a system that enhances GPS accuracy from about plus/minus 3m down to 10cm, barely a spade width. 

Known as Southern Position Augmentation Network (SouthPAN), the service’s New Zealand uplink centre was launched at a sod-turning by Minister for Land Information Damien O’Connor this month.

O’Neill describes the system as an error-correcting operation spanning Australasia that takes data from conventional GPS systems, feeds it back through a satellite uplink at Avarua Cook Islands and to users’ GPS units, which are corrected for the error level.

That significant improvement in accuracy has some major implications for farmers who may want to leverage smarter farm systems off the technology.

“Something like a driverless tractor – you would be a bit nervous about having accuracy only within 3m, but that changes at 10cm,” said O’Neill.

The technology opens up surveying and positioning opportunities that in the past would only have been available to professionals paying for high-priced accuracy positioning tech.

“It means that as a farmer, should you need to do a bit of survey work for something like laying subsoil drains, you can do that and know it is accurate, and be able to find those drains when you come back in two to three years’ time when they may be blocked – 3m can mean a look of digging.”

He sees potential for the enabling technology to open up more opportunities for virtual fencing systems, particularly for remoter hill country properties wanting to keep stock out of waterways but unable to justify the high cost of physical fences.

Craig Young, CEO of TUANZ, the Tech Users Association, said just as “internet of things” technology has taken time to evolve despite being around for some years, he suspects SouthPAN’s tech may be the same.

“It is the sort of tech where the facilities have to be put in before making the most of it. There is a bit of an adoption curve with some hype for the first couple of years, then you see the real use cases start to come through.”

O’Connor said the system should mean by 2028 helicopters and planes will be able to fly more safely in weather they cannot fly in now, while search and rescue systems will also be greatly enhanced.

The system comprises two 11m antennae being built linking to a control centre in Invercargill. 

“Our future export growth relies on lifting our sustainability credentials, and SouthPAN will help farmers and growers with precision through application of inputs and improved livestock management,” O’Connor said.

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