During his two-year stint farming at Hyden, software engineer-turned farmer Tyron Utley has opened and closed enough gates to last a lifetime.
With 13 years of experience as a software engineer under his belt, Mr Utley has gone to the drawing board to create a bluetooth gate opener for farm gates.
It’s his first project as part of his new business Black Sheep Engineering, which was unveiled during the first day of Southern Dirt TECHSPO in Wagin last Wednesday.
Mr Utley was one of nine WA start-up business owners who took to the stage to give a one-minute pitch to more than 400 people at the bumper event.
“Black Sheep Engineering is working on a couple of products focused on reducing the work effort for farmers and improving farm security,” he said.
“The business is different from traditional rural based engineering businesses that specialise in metal fabrication and repairs.
“It has its foundation in application of electronic and embedded software technology to agriculture.”
The idea for Black Sheep Engineering stems from Mr Utley and his wife Tracey Utley’s decision to move to her family farm in Hyden at the start of 2017.
Farming at Hyden is a world away from their past life in Perth, when Mr Utley worked as a senior mechatronic engineer and Mrs Utley was an occupational therapist.
Their journey to farming at Hyden was driven by the opportunity to give their children a rural upbringing.
The broadacre farm is a mixed enterprise operation with a cereal cropping program, which is 30 per cent barley, and 70 per cent wheat, with some added break crops.
Mr Utley founded Black Sheep Engineering as a way to combine his two passions — farming and engineering.
“I have always been passionate about engineering and saw the move to farming as an opportunity to combine engineering with the new career path in agriculture,” he said.
“I created the business name with the intention of finding engineering opportunities within the agriculture industry.”
But it wasn’t until he completed the one-week Agristart HARVEST boot camp at Muresk last year, that he began to realise he might be able to create his own tools for farmers.
He has since been working out what farmers want in ag-tech, and believes his life on the farm has given him insight into what technology might work.
“I can only speak from my brief experience in the agricultural industry so far … farmers are business owners and are looking for ways to improve profit and manage risk,” Mr Utley said.
“Improved profit could be anything from increasing productivity to reducing input costs, risk management could be anything from understanding weather patterns to predicting market pricing when trading produce.
“Ag-tech, in whatever form, needs to be simple to use and provide farmers with measurable value to their business in order to succeed.”
As well as the gate opener, Mr Utley is also working on creating a tank level sensor which can be retrofitted to existing tanks, “without the need for drilling or cutting into the tank”.
Both the gate operator and the tank sensor use a multi-band radio, and can be used standalone or integrated into a farm wireless network.
Mr Utley said this would allow farmers to “distribute costs over a longer period while still receiving a near-term benefit”.
“There are competing products in the market so the challenge is designing a solution that is robust and at a price point that would provide good value to the farmer,” he said.
“The business is in a unique position, being a broadacre farm as well as an ag-tech engineering business.
“This means we could offer value for collaborations and partnerships with other businesses looking to develop their own products or add-ons for agriculture but don’t have the on farm experience or access for field testing.”
Before making the move to farming, Mr Utley spent 13 years at Orbital, first working as an embedded software engineer with automotive customers around the world.
In 2010, he project managed and led the development of a dual fuel, diesel and liquefied natural gas system for long-haul road trains in WA’s mid west.
His five years prior to moving to the country were spent as Orbital’s group leader of the company’s electronics and software engineering group leader.
Mr Utley’s role was to manage multimillion dollar projects, interface with customers and suppliers, and guide engineers in the development, certification and ongoing support of engine management systems for UAVs.
The next step for Mr Utley’s business is to progress the prototype products to “robust products” suitable for trials on multiple properties.
“The feedback gained from a range of customers will be invaluable in the development process prior to producing units in any sort of volume,” he said.
While in its early stages, Mr Utley hopes his business will offer robust, reliable solutions to help farmers maximise farm productivity.
“Part of the vision is to retain and grow the business in a rural community,” he said.