Autonomous machines, precision farming and networked tractors – for some years now, intelligent technologies have been conquering fields and barns. Automation in agriculture aims to meet the increasing need for food for the rapidly growing world population.
Agricultural machines are increasingly being equipped with intelligent technologies to communicate with each other and to automatically coordinate working processes. As a result of this, the task of data management for improving efficiency throughout the production process is becoming more challenging,” emphasises Thomas Böck, Executive Board Member responsible for technology and systems at Claas. Joining forces with GEA Farm Technologies, Amazone and the new software company 365FarmNet, the agricultural machinery manufacturer has developed a system to digitalise farm processes across the board from the field to the barn.
Even as early as the sowing stage, application maps based on satellite data ensure that the seed is applied in such a way as to produce the best possible crop growth. A telemetry system records the work actually carried out. The machine settings are also optimised on an ongoing basis. Weather data provided by agricultural management software helps farmers to adjust their daily work schedule to the weather conditions. Thanks to a plant sensor, farmers can also precisely determine the nitrogen requirements of their plants so that only the quantity of fertiliser that is actually needed is then applied.
Autonomous vehicles on the field
It may be a dream for the future where passenger vehicles are concerned, but in agriculture it has long been a reality: autonomous vehicles that can till the land even without a driver. The Danish company Kongskilde Industries, for example, has developed the Vibro Crop Robotti, a vehicle to which different forms of working implements can be attached. As a result, the robot is capable of high-precision seeding and mechanical weed control, especially where crops are sown in rows. Farmers use fewer resources to get higher yields and – thanks to sensor-based measuring technology – protect the environment with targeted fertilisation and the use of fewer chemicals. “The technology in agricultural robotics is very advanced,” explains Ole Green, Head of Strategic Development at Kongskilde. “In the next few years, a number of new products will show up on the market that will increase automation in plant production.”
And that despite the fact that pollution, changing natural and weather conditions and a combination of indoor- and outdoor areas of application place many additional demands on the robots used in agriculture. Sensors, actuators, mechanical elements and control technology have to be more resilient to shocks and environmental influences than in the factory warehouse. Nonetheless, today there are a lot of Smart Systems already on the market for agricultural use.
Take, for example, the Robovator for selective hoeing in row crops from the Danish company F. Poulsen Engineering ApS. Digital cameras recognise weeds based on the height of the plant and send a pulse to the hydraulic tines, and the hoeing tools swivel in and out. The gardener can intervene and change settings manually at any time. The Robovator has its own electrical and oil supplies and moves at speeds of up to 4 km/h, even at night, and it is particularly suitable for organic farms that want to weed their crops without chemicals. “We are moving away from weeding with chemicals and towards mechanical solutions, both in organic and conventional agriculture,” says Frank Poulsen. “This is driven by regulations on the use of herbicides and increased demand for sustainable food production.”
Maximum precision for greater efficiency
Precision farming promises even greater efficiency in agriculture. Here, for example, with the assistance of satellite, sensor and geo-information systems, fertilisation is controlled in such a way that only exact quantities of fertiliser are applied. Precision farming takes into account the heterogeneous nature of the soil and plant resources in one fell swoop and can thus contribute to the further optimisation of environmentally sound crop management. In addition, machines can be controlled with extreme precision – the latest systems are exact to within two centimetres. “Precision farming brings together many different technological applications in various stages of the agricultural value chain: from automation technology to sensors for geo-mapping to big data analysis that can improve the evaluation of climate and soil data and increase the level of agricultural efficiency,” explains Norbert Dressler, Partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. “All of these application areas are going to experience dramatic growth in the coming years and, as such, will attract a new, hitherto unknown breed of participants into the agriculture business, such as players from the IT and investor sector.”
Key to increased productivity
“European manufacturers are global leaders in the agricultural robotics sector,” maintains Martin Hägele from the Fraunhofer IPA. “The portfolio ranges from robots for milking and feeding and automated stall-cleaning systems to driver assistance in mobile farming machines and robotics solutions in greenhouses, fruit plantations and vineyards, floriculture and forest management.” The rapidly growing world population is also causing demand for food to increase. Using high technology in the farmer’s field is the key to increasing production. The future belongs to systems that can operate autonomously, such as driverless vehicles, laser scanners that can, for instance, scan entire crops in rows, sophisticated sensor technology that, together with high-precision GPS systems, guarantee safe and autonomous navigation, also in cooperation with people, and sensor fusion, which intelligently combines the values measured by different sensor systems.