Visionaries flock to show off backyard inventions

Ever wake up with the answer to a problem firmly fixed in your brain? Or a great idea for a new invention? Of course you have.

If you're of a mechanical bent you will have rushed to your shed and started work. And, after long nights and weekends of sawing, planing, cutting, welding, cursing and skinned knuckles, you finally have something you can call your own.

Then what do you do? You take it to the National Fieldays.

There, you aren't rubbished or laughed at. You are encouraged, praised and honoured.

The Fieldays innovations marquee is my favourite place at the Fieldays. I can spend hours there quite happily.

It's not so much the inventions themselves - some are disarmingly simple - but the inventors who came up with them that fascinate me.

Like Steven Coleman, a Rotorua dairy farmer whose helmet saved him from serious head injury when he flipped his quad bike. "I woke up the next morning with this in my head," he said, gesturing at his new bike.

He has rebuilt it so he stands instead of sits, with access from the rear. It means it's easy to get on and off and is more manoeuvrable. He has also built a big front carrying tray - actually a cut-up fibreglass fish tank.

I asked him if any manufacturers had shown interest. "I think some would like to steal my idea; one told me to take it to the US military," he said, and added: "I'm a visionary. I see a problem and I see the answer."

For many backyard inventors, just getting to the Fieldays and receiving some sort of recognition is success enough.

Thirteen-year-old Ayla Hutchinson, of Tariki, Taranaki, saw her mum cut herself when chopping kindling and decided to make it safer. Now, at her house, kindling is cut by hammering the wood onto an upturned axehead.

Simplicity is the key to the best inventions. When inquisitive starlings started getting into his house water tank through a drainage pipe 12-year-old Brad Martin, of Kamo, Northland, came up with a plastic float attached to a weight to block the pipe but let overflow water out.

Another young inventor, Patrick Roskam, 12, of Matamata, made a flash fencing tool to help his dad hang gates.

It is a guide for drilling straight gudgeon holes and includes a metre- long aluminium level with drill guides and built-in spirit levels.

This year, a Dragon's Den-type panel cast an eye over the inventions and Patrick's enthusiastic pitch won him $1000 and an internship at Gallagher's research and development department during his school holidays.

The $15,000 prize for what the panel considered the most viable idea went to Raglan mini-copter maker Droidworx for an "aerial robot" that farmers could use to monitor their paddocks from the comfort of their own home.

I can't see farmers rushing to buy that. There were more useful inventions on show.

One I liked was a chain of rotating propeller shafts designed to stir up the liquids in an effluent pond. This invention by Lower Hutt engineer Stuart Reid stops sludge settling on the pond's bottom, solving a serious cleanup problem for dairy farmers and increasing the amount of irrigatible effluent.

Others in the useful class were a tractor-mounted weeder that uses photo cells to distinguish weeds from plants, a portable dryer that converts milk and colostrum to powder and a tipping trailer based on its pivot point so it needs only moderate musclepower to move.

Over in the huge central pavilion, I found new thinking from those paid to invent - scientists.

Massey University's Tom Phillips told me of a new phone app being tested by farmers.

It allows them to work out whether the grass in a paddock is the right quantity and quality for their cows and tells them the quantity of crops or supplements they will need to reach optimum feed levels.

At the AgResearch stand John Mills described work under way to extend the shelf life of chilled meat by improving vacuum packaging technology. I also learnt of isotopes in the soil that are unique to New Zealand. Sheep absorb them and they end up in their wool.

The scientists have come up with a simple test that will determine whether wool in a carpet claimed to be made from New Zealand yarn is the real thing or not.

We humans also have these isotopes in us. Must be some use for that. Maybe it's one for next year's Fieldays. I'll sleep on it.

Taranaki Daily News