Cotton Seed Distributors Researcher of the Year

Dr Joseph Foley, Dr Alison McCarthy and Dr Malcolm Gillies, Toowoomba

Dr Joseph Foley, Dr Alison McCarthy and Dr Malcolm Gillies have brought engineering expertise and knowledge to the cotton industry in areas of in-field irrigation and water management skills, as well as software and instrumentation development for irrigation improvement. The researchers make up the Smart Automated Irrigation Team as part of the University of Southern Queensland’s National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture. Over the past fifteen years, USQ has been focused on improving irrigation performance and cotton production. The NCEA team’s most recent work has drawn upon many technological developments in irrigation management, measurement, and control for application in cotton irrigation systems. Together they are working towards improving irrigation management performance with existing irrigation systems, delivering real benefit to the cotton industry through total water productivity growth.

Dr Joseph Foley is leading the charge in the development of precise and automated control systems in broad acre furrow irrigation and centre pivot systems across sites from the Burdekin, Darling Downs, Lower Namoi as well as northern Tasmania. Joseph first engaged with irrigation measurement in cotton in 1999. Since then, he has specialised in technologically advanced water and irrigation engineering systems. His early work in the late 1990s and early 2000s focused on improved performance of centre pivot and lateral move machines for the Australian cotton industry. “The cotton industry takes advantage of the modern automation processes that are available in other industries to assist them with irrigation performance improvements,” Joseph says.

Dr Alison McCarthy is a mechatronic research engineer, developing and evaluating plant sensing and irrigation control systems for the cotton industry since 2010. Most recently, she has been busy refining image analysis and irrigation control algorithms for the crop mapping and yield prediction MVPs, as well as the automation demonstration sites.

Dr Malcolm Gillies is a talented irrigation engineer, having effectively designed, configured and developed automated furrow irrigation systems in both cotton and sugarcane. He has developed and applied SISCO modelling systems for irrigation optimisation in cotton, and led the Sugar Research Australia project ‘modernisation of furrow irrigation in the sugar industry’ to great results by automating furrow irrigation in sugarcane fields.

“I think the cotton industry has a bright future and as a researcher I’m proud and excited to be part of that.”

The team has also played a critical role in the development of VARIwise, a unique and site-specific irrigation control system that uses crop production models for site specific crop growth prediction. VARIwise also incorporates historical and real-time soil and crop measurements, simulating site-specific irrigation control strategies using OZCOT, the industry-standard cotton production model. It involves the use of camera-based methods to estimate cotton growth, yield, soil moisture and nitrogen status. Field trials of this technology have proven five to twelve percent water savings, and ten to eleven percent yield improvements.

The NCEA team’s research has delivered automated irrigation solutions across numerous large commercial fields so that enhanced irrigation management may be applied. As a direct result of their research, growers on cooperating farms can remotely open valves and gates to automatically complete furrow irrigation.

During the past four years, these researchers have participated in numerous bus tours, field days and extension opportunities through the CottonInfo team. They have published irrigated cotton research through several papers in international peer reviewed journals, and presented cotton research findings at conference events such as the Australian Cotton and Irrigation Australia Conferences. The team is grateful for the opportunities research funding bodies within the industry offer. “Companies such as CSD are very important for our research because they enable us to connect with our growers,” says Malcolm.

Celebrating the Stars of our Industry