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Forging ahead in tech

Robotics programmes at Masterton District Library help children learn to code. PHOTOS/ SUPPLIED

From making robotics fun to open-source fabrication, and agricultural applications, Wairarapa technies are working hard not only to catch up, but to master the equipment that will be basic tools of tomorrow. CAL ROBERTS goes geek to find out more.

At Masterton District Library, its digital services department has been equipping children with keys to the tech kingdom.

Paul Greville, together with Georgiana Dodds and Angela McDonald, see bringing technology to Wairarapa as part of the library’s modern role.

Greville said coding was a big growth industry, and school curriculums were lagging behind.

“In 20 to 30 years, school leavers will need to know some form of coding.”

Through robotics classes, he said the library team offered “coding in disguise”.

Kids were given a tablet and robot and asked to make them compete in navigational challenges.

“What they’re essentially doing is taking our robots and providing them coded instructions to achieve what they want to achieve.”

By making coding fun and practical, children were thriving.

Greville called it their spoonful of sugar.

“Google alone has said they need around 20,000 coders in the Australasian theatre – basically they needed them yesterday.

“There’s absolutely no reason that 5000 of them can’t come from Wairarapa.”

He said if the region got ahead of the game, it could provide bright futures by creating tech leaders right at home.

“It’s a real escape hatch for a lot of kids around here – and we’re pursuing this opportunity as fast as we can.”

Greville said Masterton was behind the national average of broadband uptake by about 12 per cent – up to 30 per cent behind in some places.

“Most digital literacy is based on that foundation – access to the internet.

“If they have no access to the internet, they have no reason to go looking for any kind of digital literacy and no means to do so.”

He said of 500 routers provided under the Spark Jump programme nationally, 130 had been distributed by Masterton Library.

The library was proud of that figure, and keen to keep going.

“I would be quite happy to give away a thousand of these things in Masterton and get everyone on to the internet, so the basic learning can begin.”

The library also had a ‘makerspace’, provided by Fab Lab which equipped them with hardware to teach pupils – and anyone is welcome — about how to use 3D printing technology and more.

Across town, Kirsten Browne and John Hart are printing furniture to fill their office.

Fab Lab members Kirsten Browne and John Hart.

Both are founding members of Masterton’s Fab Lab — part of a global network of more than 1200 ‘makerspaces’.

Its mission is to provide open access to digital tools and education.

“If you’ve got a personal project, or you’ve got a global project, you can start prototyping in here,” Browne said.

Hart said there were companies and laboratories in New Zealand printing other things – such as titanium rocket parts.

“They’ve said to us over the years, ‘if you get bright students coming through, let us know – because we need to have those people in our lab in the future’.”

Browne said there had not been anything like Fab Lab in Wairarapa before.

Once people learned what they were about, the next step was to “make more makers”.

The 3D printers at Fab Lab prepared users for more complex machines.

“This is a catalyst.”

Browne said the region needed the digital connectivity and the tools to innovate.

“We want it so we can make our life better here – not just for the sake of it.”

Browne said the future, as some people imagined it, had arrived.

“This is what Wairarapa needs to catch up on – it’s actually here now.

“For people in the agriculture sector, it’s super here now – you might not realise — but it is.”

The sky’s the limit when it comes to technology and farming, and Wairarapa’s Taratahi Institute of Agriculture is already up there.

The institute educates future leaders in agriculture, partly by embracing innovative opportunities.

Director of farms at Taratahi Paul Crick said though it was still early days, special attention was being paid to satellite technology.

“Drones have come along – and drones are great – there’s a need that they fulfil.

“But I think if we can get to using satellite technology it’s a much broader spectrum of information we can gather.”

Taratahi was involved in a trial with Ravensdown co-op and Massey University, using high-tech imaging on a local farm.

They used hyperspectral imaging equipment attached to a plane to map the 3375ha property.

The equipment collects and processes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Pairing the image with hundreds of soil tests and herbage tests in plots around the farm, the team were able to effectively calibrate the camera to recognise pasture nutrient content based on light readings of the pasture.

“We can get the macro nutrients and micro nutrients given the different spectrums of light being emitted and picked up by the camera.”

In a practical sense, that technology is then able to be transferred into a topdressing plane to automate delivery systems.

Crick said traditionally, a pilot would need to look out the window and eyeball the places to drop.

“It was kind of like texting and driving you know, probably not a good idea.

“This is a lot more accurate.”

He said using the data, farmers could map their farm and mark places where they did not want any nutrient applied – such as waterways and wetlands.

During the trial, the team was able to eliminate more than 10 per cent of the farm for spraying.

“That’s a really practical and effective saving in fertiliser use and we’re applying it where it needs to go.”

When it comes to future, the tech sector is giving Wairarapa wings.

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