With Tablet PC and Tractor: On our Way to Agriculture 4.0
Everybody is talking about the Digital Future. In places where you would not suspect it, technology is already quite advanced indeed: In agriculture. Smart Farming and, hence, the Digital Revolution of Agriculture offer numerous advantages in farming. Precision agriculture benefits from tractors that drive by themselves and work the soil with a precision never before achieved – on the base of digital networking which links all systems and data.
According to a poll conducted by Bitcom in 2016, over 50 percent of farmers already use digital technology in Germany. No wonder: Sensors and robots in the barns and stables and GPS-controlled machinery, drones on the soil and above it, open up a whole new world of possibilities, for a more efficient and resource-friendly, computerised agriculture. Four out of ten farmers in Germany use digitally operated agricultural equipment. As far as robot technology in barns and stables is concerned, the share is just short of 40 percent. The farmers polled named savings in work and time, but also a better competitiveness, higher efficiency and less harm to the environment as main advantages.
Digital systems are crucial for efficient farming, based on cloud technology they are accessible from anywhere. © Fanatic Studio I Getty Images
Digital Crop Cultivation
Increased mechanisation and automation have made crop cultivation even more efficient. Modern combine harvesters have become like factories on wheels. Harvesting, separation and cleaning of the crops is mostly automatic. However, the use of computer technology in Smart Farming is a step ahead already. Several factors come together here. Sensors collect all relevant data about soil quality, water requirements, stage of plant growth and much more. Computers process that data and give orders accordingly to the farming equipment, which then works the soil, supported by satellites. In some cases, this is done in real-time. The tractor is fitted with a sensor, and what that sensor measures will decide how the fertiliser is distributed. These digitally connected machines precisely process a huge quantity of data – thereby, farmers have the whole world of agricultural knowledge at their disposal. “Smart”, then, means the best possible co-operation of humans and machines, of soil, animals and plants. Robots roam the fields independently, remove weeds and distribute seed, fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides. All this is long since past the trial phase. The largest drone worldwide is the Agronator, whose rotary wings span 4.60 metres. It can carry a payload of approximately 30 kilograms. Drones of this type allow to locate an invasion of pests or weed early and to react accordingly, with the least amount of drugs, right at the spot where it is needed. Minimally invasive, so to speak. Sowing and fertilising, too, can be coordinated down to the individual fraction of a surface - precision farming which would not be thinkable without digital technology.
Humans think, GPS controls
What in road traffic until now seems a mere fantasy of developers, has proven its worth already in agriculture: GPS-controlled driving. Thanks to modern geodata-based steering systems, these machines stay in their tracks much more precisely than humans ever could. They do not wander off by more than perhaps one inch. This is a decisive advantage especially where tractors have to go over the same surface a number of times, be it plowing, sowing, fertilising or harvesting. Computer-aided combine harvesters work more efficiently and fully use their potential. Supported by laser scanner or GPS systems, they go back and forth at the very edge of the cultivated surface. This does not just avoid unnecessary driving and loss of harvest. Such precise steering also reduces the workload of the driver, who can then focus his or her attention on the task at hand. This sort of machinery control in Smart Farming offers decisive advantages: less working time, especially in work-intensive periods; lower energy consumption; savings in production means – and all this adds up to significant cost reduction over the long term.
Smart Weather Forecast
In spite of all that modern equipment: Agriculture is done largely in the open air and remains as weather-dependent as ever. Farmers cannot influence the weather, but the weather greatly influences farming. Today, a close network of weather stations is available. These supply a wealth of agriculture-specific weather data and make computer-supported prognoses possible, with forecasts by the hour. Such weather data are fed into the big data pool which helps farmers to make the right decisions.
IQ in Barns and Stables
Whether automated feeding, milking robots or sensor-controlled air conditioning – in stables, too, digitalisation has been making its entry for years already. Especially in dairy farming, data for animal weight, milking times or milk quantities are collected. This enables monitoring right down to the individual animal. Automated milking systems increase the quantity of milk obtained by seven percent on average. The farmer can see on the mobile phone or tablet when an animal shows changes in behaviour or is in heat. Early warning systems, too, can be installed, which notice symptoms of disease and alert the owner long before the owner would notice the symptoms. Correctly installed, such a “Cow Shed 4.0” not just greatly facilitates the chores of the farmer but also contributes to an increase in animal well-being.
Farmers and their Office
Modern farming involves a certain amount of office work, too. Administration, bookkeeping, fertiliser planning or feed calculation are just examples. According to the type of operation, it may be necessary to capture the machine utilisation degree, to measure stocks of feed and fertiliser, to place orders or to calculate cost. These processes are quite normal in any business. Many farmers now use software made to purpose for agriculture. Often this is available as mobile phone application as well. Bespoke digital farm management systems are available for just about any sort of agriculture or type of organisation.
Connected Agricultural Software
Only the integration of the individual components, i.e. the networking of the different digital offerings, makes Smart Farming a truly smart technology that uses all its possibilities to the fullest – for example, the "stable" automatically informs the "office" that a certain feed component is running low, and the corresponding order is then automatically placed. The prerequisite for this is that all components are connected and the software on the farm "understands" the tractor in the field and can automatically record the data it sends. There is another prerequisite besides compatibility and system capability: Agriculture 4.0 will only truly come into its own when the proper infrastructure exists even in remote areas, where agriculture is prevalent. Infrastructure must be designed accordingly. For example, powerful broadband connectivity must be available.
One aspect of all this, which is much talked about is Data Security. The higher the quantity of data obtained by networking and connecting systems, the bigger the benefit from the analysis of such data. This is one side of the matter. On the other hand, of course, every farmer wishes to and has to remain the master of his or her data. These are operational data which can decide about the competitiveness of the operation. To create legal security in this domain and to find practicable solutions is another such pressing task of today, and work is underway to progress here even as we speak.