New company Observant has produced technology that’s seeing many stations switch to solar-powered surveillance equipment to monitor stock and water.

Story By Paula Heelan

With extensive computer experience from American companies such as Netscape Communications in California’s Silicon Valley, Simon Holmes á Court has put his swag of technical skills to good use. With breakthrough technology in remote monitoring and control of wide-area water systems, his company, Observant Pty Ltd, has developed the first whole-property infrastructure management system, saving pastoralists significant time, water and money.

On his return from the United States, Simon considered how he might apply his technical knowledge to his family’s business, Heytesbury Beef. One of Australia’s largest cattle enterprises, it runs more than 150,000 head of stock across six stations spanning the east Kimberley and the Victoria River District in the Northern Territory. At the company’s Pigeon Hole Station, 390 kilometres south of Katherine, NT, a joint venture between Heytesbury Beef and Meat & Livestock Australia’s (MLA) Partners in Innovation Program researched grazing-management systems. “One project goal was to evaluate remote-management technologies for the pastoral industry,” Simon says. “The industry has for many years dreamed of remotely managing water points from the homestead via radio. While pastoralists had heard such systems were on the horizon, the technology was, in fact, a long way from becoming a commercially supported product. So, rather than evaluating it, we realised we would have to build it.”

Vast stations employ bore runners to check water levels and conditions at troughs, tanks and dams. They can drive more than 40 hours a week in a four-wheel-drive, in many cases just to confirm there are no problems at water points. “It’s a really demanding and expensive job,” Simon says. “Our goal was to find a simple, reliable system to reduce those demands. We found a group in Exmouth, WA, that had been developing some good ideas and had a prototype, but were a way off releasing a commercial product.” In 2004 Simon invested in that company, renamed it ‘Observant’ and moved it to Melbourne. From there, where the hardware and software are designed and assembled, Observant staff monitor the status of hundreds of watering points across the continent.

This story excerpt is from Issue #65

Outback Magazine: June/July 2009