Mallee Regional Innovation Centre
A trusted partnership that’s helping grow innovation in the Mallee
Partnership at a glance
- The Mallee Regional Innovation Centre (MRIC) opened in 2019 as a 'one stop shop' to connect the community with university expertise and problem-solving capacity
- A collaboration between La Trobe University, University of Melbourne and SuniTAFE in Mildura, the centre was born out of Regional Development Victoria’s goal to drive innovation across four broad areas – water, horticulture, energy and the environment
- Locals bring problems and challenges to MRIC, which in turn matches the project with researchers to co-create solutions using advanced technology like robotics, sensors and imaging
- MRIC, which is based in Mildura, has helped the region’s dried fruit industry by designing and building a vine pruning robot
- The centre’s network of community partners is enriching opportunities for La Trobe researchers as well as creating positive impact for Victoria’s 'food bowl'.
When Mildura’s Year 12 students went to a recent agricultural field day at the invitation of the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre, they got an eye-opening glimpse at farming’s future.
Centre co-director Professor Ashley Franks says the schools reported their students were blown away by what they saw: drones, self-driving vehicles, laser technology and satellite imaging that turned the traditional view of farming on its head.
“They had been thinking ‘Why would you want to go into agriculture? It's just farming.’ They hadn’t really thought of it as high-end technology,” says Professor Franks, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Capability) at La Trobe University.
That’s the mission of the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre (MRIC): to support innovation in Victoria’s “food bowl”. By connecting a range of local problems and ideas with research expertise and experience, the Centre is driving creative solutions to make an impact on the region’s billion-dollar agriculture industry, and environmental sustainability.
Born out of Regional Development Victoria funding in 2019, the Centre aims to fast-track development projects in four major focus areas – water, horticulture, energy and environment.
A collaboration between La Trobe University – already part of the fabric of Mildura – University of Melbourne and SuniTAFE, Professor Franks describes MRIC as a local research shopfront for the partner universities.
Local people can come to discuss their needs, problems and ideas. We can explore those, and then team them with the researchers with the knowhow to provide solutions. The idea was, how can we work with the community on ground and bring the university’s resources to them?
A great example of the can-do potential brokered by MRIC is a project collaboration between Dried Fruits Australia and La Trobe’s Robotics, Automation, Mechatronics, Prototyping and Sensing (RAMPS) Laboratory. Led by Associate Professor Robert Ross, director of RAMPS, a multidisciplinary research and development team was asked to investigate whether grapevine pruning could be automated.
With workers scarce, Associate Professor Ross says the size of farms was influenced by how much pruning could be done. Could robotics make the difference?
“They do the summer pruning very easily, with a tractor with a big cutting blade, because it doesn't need to be accurate,” he says. “But winter pruning needs to be accurate to within a centimetre. So, we proposed and designed a robot that can bolt on to a tractor and will sense exactly where the cuts need to be with precision.”
Professor Franks says the pruning project is just one of many that are improving efficiencies and ensuring useful innovations – such as methods of using water more efficiently – aren’t just siloed within one field but shared, so other industries and organisations can also benefit from great ideas.
Critical to MRIC’s success, he says, is consultation between community members, local industry experts and the researchers. The centre celebrates the innovation already happening in the region, while offering to broker solutions using advanced technology such as satellite imaging and sensors. And the range of challenges, in turn, brings researchers the satisfaction of creating real-world impact.
“MRIC has given the community the voice to tell us what they actually need, so we don’t just work on what we think they need,” says Professor Franks.
“We’ve become a trusted partner in the community.”
Learn more about the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre.