Looking like a cross between a kid's tricycle and a miniature harness racing buggy, Gertrude had little trouble negotiating mud, ruts and slopes around the paddocks and effluent pond on James Stewart's farm in the Manawatu.

The remote-controlled robot was given the name by farmers and technology experts taking part in the inaugural AgTech Hackathon, which turned out to be one of the highest-profile events of the entire AgriFoods Investment Week in Palmerston North last month.

Hackathon enabled farmers to present everyday challenges to ag-techs, who then worked in teams to devise solutions using their hardware, mechatronics and software programming skills. The selected challenges included managing water supply, measuring grass, dairy shed monitoring and beef genetics data systems.

James is the Manawatu-Rangitikei Federated Farmers President and he and Mat Hocken, the province's dairy chair, were key partners in putting together the hackathon with Microsoft, Building Clever Companies, the Future Institutes, the Central Economic Development Agency and Accelerate 25.

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Gertrude became a bit of a star when the ag-techs got out in the paddocks on James' farm. Put together relatively quickly so that there was something active that hackathon participants could view, one of Gertrude's makers, Massey University mechatronics Masters graduate Tobin Hall, said it was "no one trick pony".

"It's a remote controlled gantry that can transport any number of sensors," Tobin said.
James explained that with hundreds of hectares to cover, one of the time-consuming and more boring tasks for farmers was getting out and measuring grass growth.

Having data on growth was essential to knowing whether supplementary feed was going to be needed, whether more animals needed to be sent to the works or just how much fertiliser should be added.

If a robot could be fitted with sensors and pre-programmed do get out and do that sort of task, it could be of tremendous benefit.

From a farmer's point of view, hackathon got off to a great start when Ranveer Chandra from the United States, the head of Microsoft's precision agriculture programme, said at the launch event that Kiwi farmers were the most environmentally-aware he had encountered.

"We get bagged all the time so to have someone who deals with agricultural systems all over the world come in and say 'you guys are leading edge', well it was nice to hear," James said.

For the farm visit James and Mat also hosted other experts from the USA, Singapore and the head of Microsoft NZ.

Gertrude became a bit of a star when the ag-techs got out in the paddocks on James' farm

"To have the opportunity to connect with people of that calibre was really worthwhile.
"The real highlight for me was that it was a whole lot of organisations working together, and Federated Farmers was at the forefront. I think this event broke down a few silos.

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"The likes of Massey University have been working on various projects in agriculture. There have been things happening over the years but I think the hackathon shook the tree a bit and got people talking.

"That networking is going to keep going."

The winning team presented a range of tools for farmers at the final session, including a gate opener operated from a smart phone that had a range of 15km, a system for remote monitoring of water troughs and the potential to also operate security and farm management cameras.

"It was impressive from team members who were from four nationalities and, like most of them, were meeting for the first time at the hackathon launch," James said.

"Talking to other teams too, the cool thing with it was that they intended to stay in touch and continue working on projects."

Another team that also designed a water monitoring solution has a product that is "pretty much ready to go to market".

James and Mat put a lot of time into the event, and it was a shame Mat missed the final night because he was in South America on a Nuffield Scholarship. But the effort was worth it, James said.

"There were no negatives at all. Hopefully we'll get some get agriculture technology out of it in the long run.

"And it was cool the Federated Farmers brand was all over it. Everyone knows we do a whole lot of good work on policy fronts but this was showing we take a lead on technology and data use, and helping farmers get stuff done."