Satellite-guided tractors, high-tech sensors and field robots: New technologies are taking over the fields. They are intended to help agriculture overcome the challenges posed by a growing world population and climate change. Innovative farming technology will make the cultivation and harvesting of crops more environmentally friendly, more efficient and more sustainable.
People tend to associate innovative technologies with things such as non-invasive surgery, nanorobots and fuel cells. Yet high-tech equipment has long been a part of agriculture too. The agricultural sector is also using some highly innovative technologies, and has even outstripped the automotive industry. Many farmers’ encounters with modern technology go well beyond online trading of crops and raw materials through internet-based platforms.
Increased productivity is essential to safeguard the food supply
Satellite-based information systems are playing a growing role in the farming landscape. Thanks to satellites orbiting our planet, agricultural machinery can work its way across the fields with enormous precision. The GPS-guided machines make life easier for the farmer and increase efficiency in the fields. The more precisely spraying equipment containing crop protection products or high-tech sowing equipment is guided through the furrows, the lower the product losses in the field. There is no doubt that modern agriculture has become a high-tech sector, and its level of innovation in fact is second only to aviation and space technology. The emphasis on more efficient technologies in terms of energy consumption and raw material requirements and harvests is set to grow in the future. A few figures illustrate this development: in 1950 one farmer fed 40 people, today he is feeding 147. If this trend continues, that one farmer will be feeding 186 people in 2050.
“Agriculture is undergoing some radical changes and is increasingly having to face up to global challenges,” comments Professor Thomas Jungbluth, President of the Association for Technology and Structures in Agriculture. “A growing world population, the impact of climate change and growing demand for biofuels will have a major influence on agriculture and will change it dramatically.” There is little scope for increasing the amount of land available for agriculture. On the contrary, climate change is leading to the desertification of ever more land, and rainfall is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
According to the United Nations and the FAO, just 1,800 m² of land suitable for agriculture will be available per head of population in the world; the corresponding figure in 1950 was 5,100 m², almost three times as much. Like many agricultural experts, Jungbluth believes that “it is vital for productivity per unit of land to increase if the food supply is to be safeguarded in the future”.
Equipment manufacturers have developed high-performance machines to boost the efficiency of all aspects of agriculture. Machines have long been an integral part of cattle production, for example in feeding the animals or cleaning out their housing. Computerized milk analysis provides the farmer with current information about his animals, and special software uses the information to produce individual recipes for concentrated feed. Milking robots are an increasingly common feature of animal sheds. In the field high-tech combine harvesters, tractors and silage harvesters are a normal part of agriculture today. According to the Statistical Department of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), agriculture employs the second highest number of robots after defense, rescue and security applications. And automation continues to expand. Robots, sensors, new media and machines will lead to a dramatic shift in agriculture, and the farmers of the future will be faced with a number of new challenges.
Precision farming: help with the harvest from space
All the high-tech developments used in agriculture have certain things in common: they are designed to reduce costs, lower the burden on the environment, and produce higher yields. Nowadays farmers are using modern technologies such as the satellite-based global positioning system GPS to make their work easier. Sensors and GPS play a fundamental role in what is known as precision farming. They enable combine harvesters and tractors to traverse fields to an accuracy of about two centimeters.
Various sensors also register the soil characteristics, vegetation and presence of pests, and this enables several growth periods to be compared on maps. The farmer can then sow more precisely and use crop protection products more specifically. “Mobile spraying computers automatically regulate the volume of crop protection product that is applied,” explains Dr. Reinhard Friessleben, an applications technologist at Bayer CropScience, a crop protection company in Monheim. Computers transmit information about the fertilizers and crop protection products used, the quality of the soil and harvest yields. They are compiled in a farm inputs database which enables the farmer to see what has been done in the field and when.
“We work closely with farm machinery manufacturers at the interface between technology and agriculture, and we help them to develop environmentally compatible spraying technologies, for example,” the Bayer expert explains. This is an area in which GPS technology can provide useful input. “Fields are rarely exact rectangles,” Friessleben says. “The nozzles of a spraying boom, which can be up to 36 meters long, can be better aligned with the edges of the field using GPS, and this means that only the crops come into contact with the crop protection product.” High-tech is also used to fill and clean the systems, and this reduces the exposure of people and the environment to a minimum.
Another aspect is that soil quality is not the same everywhere. Sensors can identify differences, and can also determine how much of the plants is green. This enables fertilizers to be applied specifically to achieve even plant growth. “Another aspect that must not be forgotten is that the agriculture of the future needs to be as sustainable as possible,” comments Dr. Thomas Engel, Managing Director of the farm machinery manufacturer John Deere ISG Europe. “Crop protection products and fertilizers need to be applied as precisely as possible and in the exact quantities required for optimal plant growth.”
Robot swarms in the field
In an attempt to make farming even more efficient and save resources, robots are being developed which should be able to handle various tasks in the field with a high degree of independence. They need to be very light because heavy machinery uses a lot of energy and compacts the soil. This in turn means that further energy has to be expended to break up the soil again. Scientists are already working on small, lightweight field robots and robot swarms which are intended to work around the clock on small and large areas of land. Optical sensors enable them to scan plants and measure the density of the plant mass. They can locate insect pests, fungi and weeds and then control them with a targeted application of specific crop protection products.
In the future, large machines and small field robots will work together in a kind of fleet. “However, the machines will have to communicate with each other to do this,” Jungbluth says. Scientists are currently developing intelligent computer programs and data standards so that processes can be harmonized and interact seamlessly.
Exact measurements even at 200 kph
Agricultural equipment is increasingly becoming a high-tech domain. The machines used in farming had to be made more sophisticated primarily in response to the growing importance of renewable raw materials for biogas facilities. Silage harvesters, for example, have become more versatile and more complex. Nowadays its not enough to harvest and chop crops such as grass, corn or alfalfa. “Factors that contribute to achieving greater economic efficiency are the harvesting time, a consistent cut length and, more particularly, exact and reliable determination of the moisture content,” explains Thomas Engel from John Deere. “The growing number of facilities and the greater amount of land needed to produce biomass are forcing us to rethink the way we evaluate harvesting strategies. The situation is of course aggravated by the diminishing amount of land available and the growing pressure to increase yield per unit area and thus to produce more energy.”
The quality of silage can be tested during the harvest using the HarvestLab system. The content of dry mass can be determined directly with near-infrared light, which is reflected differently depending on the moisture content of the crop. The mobile plant laboratory measures particles from the harvest roughly 17 times per second. The sensor produces exact measurements even at high throughput speeds of more than 200 kilometers per hour. And wireless data transfer, accessible through the internet, tells the farmer exactly where his machinery is, enabling him to deploy his fleet efficiently.
Robust plants to cope with climate stress
But modern farming equipment is not enough to make agriculture more productive. The plants also need to produce increasingly high yields and to cope better with adverse conditions. They have to be able to survive long periods of drought and flooding, severe temperature fluctuations and extreme radiation from the sun. Scientists are using modern breeding methods to make plants capable of producing consistently high yields despite fluctuating environmental conditions. Crop protection experts also want to prevent resistance developing in insects and weeds. “Intelligent resistance management makes it possible to maintain the susceptibility of pests to various active ingredients for a long time,” explains Dr. Ralf Nauen, a biologist working in Product-related Research at Bayer CropScience in Monheim. It is important to attack as many different targets in the pest as possible, to monitor pests systematically, and to produce international resistance maps. Farmers can help to prevent attack by certain pests by rotating their crops, for example.
All these changes are already part of modern agriculture. In order to remain successful, the farmer must pay increasing attention to trends in information technology and agricultural technology.