Bird, plane or scientific blimp?
Walking through the storage sheds at the Ginninderra Experiment Station, you would expect to find some interesting agricultural scientific equipment. What you might not expect to discover is a blimp.
However, like all shed items on site, the blimp has a story to tell. It’s part of a collection of items that also includes a ‘golf buggy on stilts’ or Phenomobile used to measure how effectively plants grow and perform under different field conditions.
The technology was developed by the High Resolution Plant Phenomics Centre, which is the Canberra node of the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility – a partnership between CSIRO, The Australian National University, University of Adelaide and the Federal Government.
The technology uses cameras that capture different light wavelengths and signals to photograph growing plants. The photographs created allow scientists to make measurements about the plants’ growth rates, their water use efficiency and how productive the crops are over the growing season.
Having lab and farm facilities on site allowed the scientists to develop the technology in the lab, then test it in the field. The Phenomobile can get above a row of plants without harming the crop and take detailed images. The blimp does the same and can photograph a whole paddock at a time.
Being able to measure the plant without disturbing the crop or destroying the plants means crops can be monitored throughout the growing season as the environmental conditions change. The performance of different crop varieties can be monitored during a drought to see which varieties preform best under Australia’s harsh conditions.
After being trialled, tested and perfected on the CSIRO site, (and surprising a few local residents), the equipment is now used to make measurements on the paddocks of research collaborators and farmers.
While there are now certainly smaller and more portable measuring tools, such as drones, that can fly over plants and crops, the blimp provided a steady platform for the development of the imaging and analysis tools that are used in photographing plants across large areas.
While the CSIRO blimp won’t be seen again in the Canberra skies, the technology it helped to develop continues to be used in farms across the country.
CSIRO in Canberra: from agriculture to space
CSIRO’s presence in Canberra is almost as old as Canberra itself, with just 14 years separating the establishment of Canberra and the creation of our national science body.
Since these early beginnings, Canberra has been a critical part of CSIRO’s research in agriculture and the natural sciences.
CSIRO’S Black Mountain offices opened in 1927, with the Department of Entomology moving into its own building in 1934. The Australian National Herbarium was also established during the 1930s.
The first site for agricultural research in Canberra was a site at Duntroon Farm, which later became Canberra Airport. A story in The Canberra Times in May 1931 said the costs of operating the farm would be covered by a £6,000 per annum contribution from the Empire Marketing Board, and that:
“Special attention is to be paid to investigations of wheat resistance and diseases, while a special section will be set aside for testing new grasses and forage plants to be introduced from abroad.”
This research site shifted from Duntroon to the Dickson Experiment Station in 1940, and experiments into crop and pasture trials continued here. Scientists also looked at how land could be used productively for livestock and crop farming, and housed a large flock of merino and Border Leicester sheep.
CSIRO’s history in Canberra is about more than agriculture, even though this has been a key focus. In 1965 the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex opened at Tidbinbilla, and has worked with NASA on space exploration missions ever since. For nearly 60 years, the Gungahlin Homestead property at Crace was used for CSIRO’s Sustainable Ecosystems research program.
As urban development began to encroach on the Dickson farm, it was time for the field state to be moved once again. CSIRO acquired the 701 acre land for the Ginninderra Experiment Station in 1958, moving all research there by 1962.
The Dickson area turned out to be much-needed land for urban development, as the ACT population almost doubled from 55,000 to over 90,000 in the five years between 1960 and 1965.
Photos from the time show the rapid pace of development in Dickson and the surrounding suburbs once this land close to the centre of Canberra was repurposed.
Meanwhile, the Ginninderra site over the years has provided space for multiple research projects, including testing varieties of crop seeds, animal farming and other agricultural experiments.
The site has contributed to Australian science including the development of BarleyMax and dual purpose wheats, crop and pasture improvement, sustainable farming, plant breeding and the effects of climate changes on crop production and soil carbon.
Once again, the city of Canberra has grown up around a CSIRO research site. Neighbouring suburbs include Hall and Nicholls to the north, the Belconnen suburb of Giralang to the east, and Evatt, Spence and Fraser to the south.
The story of CSIRO’s agriculture research in Canberra continues with the creation of the National Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Precinct, a $190 million investment bringing together research partners at CSIRO’s foundation site at Black Mountain. This initiative will bring together researchers from all over the world to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges in plant and environmental sciences.