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Irrigation innovation

This is an article in our nine-part series on Australia Asia innovation.

Water is the world’s most precious resource. Without proper supplies, farmers cannot meet the planet’s growing demand for food.

Yet global estimates suggest there are 275 million hectares of land whose irrigation systems desperately need modernisation: 55–60 million in China, 25 million in the US, and 2.5 million in Australia. The market has proved fertile for Rubicon Water.

At sites across the globe, Rubicon Water’s installations measure and control water flow, making hundreds of small changes daily to send precise amounts of water to farmers when needed – the magic of algorithms, wireless telemetry, solar power, sensors, smart gates and valves.

“Our systems have now been deployed in China, Spain, Chile, New Zealand, France, Mexico, Italy, USA and Canada,” says Melbourne engineer David Aughton, who – with four enterprising colleagues with expertise in software development and irrigation system operation – founded irrigation innovation company Rubicon Water in 1995.

Along the way, the group teamed up with the University of Melbourne’s Professor Iven Mareels and scientists of the CRC for Sensor Signal and Information Processing, and jointly developed the Total Channel Control System for automating and revitalising outdated irrigation systems.

“That big team effort is ongoing with the university in systems control engineering and smart software for intelligently moving water,” adds Aughton.

Small-scale pilot projects kicked off in 2002 in Victoria’s irrigation districts and in Coleambally, NSW, followed by large-scale deployments in 2005 and now deployments in Australia, China and the US.

Today, Rubicon Water delivers smart, green automation, sensor measuring and control technologies for drought-stricken irrigators from two offices in China, three in the US, and other strategically placed sales offices. Staff numbers have grown from 60 in 2008, to over 200 employees in 2014.

Rubicon is an Australian innovation success story involved in massive irrigation projects in China.

HQ: Melbourne

R&D: 15,000 products sold

Reach: Spain, Chile, New Zealand, France, Mexico, China, Italy, USA, Canada

At a glance: Established in 1995, Rubicon is a private, Australian-owned company with 200 employees and sales offices in the US, China, Spain, Mexico and New Zealand. It also has a research partnership with the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering.

Aughton says that their state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Shepparton has exported 15,000 Rubicon gates, meters and products globally.

In Australia, Rubicon has multi-million dollar modernisation contracts in the Goulburn–Murray districts, in Murray Irrigation in southern NSW, in the Ord Valley in Queensland, and is involved in massive irrigation projects in China. The Fen River Irrigation District in China’s Yellow River Basin, for example, covers 100,000 hectares and supplies water on rotation to hundreds of thousands of small landholders growing crops and vegetables.

Fen River Irrigation Authority Director, Li Ming Xing, says he “highly recommends” Total Channel Control, due in part to Rubicon saving 75% of the costs of alternative technologies. – Paul Hendy

Next: Microtechnology manufacturing success