Which square metre needs how much water and fertiliser? How remote sensing turns fields into “talking fields”.
A farmer knows his land. That's the way things have always been and still are today. With one difference: In the past, everything depended on the farmer's experience. He knew which corner of the field to water more because the soil there was especially dry. Today, his tractor knows that, too. It drives across the field as if under remote control, measures the state of the plants, turns around on its own at the end of the plot and distributes a precisely measured amount of fertiliser. “There are basically two systems for precisely managing the plots,” explains Prof. Dr.-Ing. Stefan Böttinger, Head of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Hohenheim. “In the first system, sensors are attached to the tractor, usually at the front or on the roof. They ascertain the current nutrient supply, and the system uses that data to measure, for example, the ideal amount of fertiliser to distribute.” He goes on to describe the second variation, the digital, map-based approach – remote sensing. This system also requires sensors attached to the tractor as well as a software on the farmer's computer. “The sensors ascertain things such as soil condition, while a GPS transmitter simultaneously determines the exact position of the tractor,” says Böttinger. Currently, the data is usually saved to a card which the farmer can read out at home on a computer, similar to the way the SD card of a digital camera works. In the future, however, the trend will lean more and more toward wireless data transmission by a smartphone or a local W-LAN network, for example. “This way, with the corresponding software, the farmer can create their own maps using the GPS data.” Fields can also be measured by drones using the same principle.
Talking fields maps
The more detailed the information on the soil, the more complex the design of the software which processes the data needs to be. In addition: Algorithms that calculate recommendations based on the information are also required. “This means that the tendency is shifting away from installing software on personal computers and toward having web-based calculations performed on an online platform with various providers who then generate the digital maps,” says Böttinger. The so-called “Talking fields maps” make fields speak: They provide information on soil quality. This approach has another advantage: The stronger the presence of the provider in the respective region, the more data they will receive, from other farmers too, allowing them to permanently adjust and improve the algorithms. As more farmers ascertain their plots digitally, the individual benefits for each farmer go up as well. By the way, a tractor with a GPS receiver and a compensation signal can now be controlled within a margin of two centimetres.
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