High-Tech on the Fields

The agricultural industry is rushing into digitization with giant strides. Agricultural machinery manufacturers in particular are demonstrating an ingenuity with digital high-tech that even the automotive industry could learn from. DEKRA solutions took a closer look at the current trends in crop farming.

Digitization has arrived in agriculture. Photo: Shutterstock / Sutadimages
Digitization has arrived in agriculture. Photo: Shutterstock / Sutadimages

Crop production is a perfect playing field for high-end technologies. Drones equipped with cameras provide high-resolution images of every part of the field, allowing weeds, fungal diseases, and pests to be precisely identified. Farmers can use them to treat problem areas with pinpoint accuracy, instead of just applying crop protection products to large areas, as has been the case until now. Tractors, harvesters, and attachments are also increasingly equipped with high-tech. Agricultural machinery using radar and lidar sensors to determine the composition, moisture, and density of the soil has long been available. Highly automated fertilizing machines open up the soil between the rows of plants with precise accuracy and apply a precisely measured amount of fertilizer. In Agriculture 4.0, it seems, the line between reality and science fiction is thinning. Could a farmer possibly steer a fleet of ten fully automated tractors across the field without an operator’s cab but instead via smartphone?

Driverless systems are not uncommon in agriculture. Photo: John Deere

In fact, he can. According to an industry report by the Germany Trade and Invest (GTAI) on digital trends in the Russian economy, the VTZ tractor plant has been conducting field tests with exactly this setting for several years. Russian agriculture is also working with satellites and drones to monitor plant growth in real time. According to GTAI, farmers in the US, on the other hand, are focusing not only on expanding their machinery, but also on networking existing technology. The trend here is clearly leaning toward Big Data – more data must be collected and analyzed in order to save time and production costs. And what about smart agriculture in Germany?

How Do Digitization and Sustainable Agriculture Fit Together?

Digital technologies are booming in Germany, according to a study presented in April 2020 by the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (Bitkom) and the German Farmers’ Association. According to the study, most farmers are convinced that digitization enables environmentally friendly production. The portfolio of digital options begins with predictive maintenance of machinery and equipment, in which the evaluation of sensor data provides early warning of impending failures. This variant is used by around 19 percent of the companies surveyed. Around a third use sensor technology to measure climate, soil, and plant data. Also about a third of companies are planning to use intelligent and site-specific application of crop protection products or fertilizers. 40 percent of all farmers work with agricultural apps for smartphones and tablets, and another 40 percent control their operations with the help of special farm management systems. At 45 percent, the use of agricultural machinery controlled via GPS is comparatively widespread.

Tractors Offer Assistance Systems with Sophisticated Capabilities

Indeed, tractors play a key role on the path to digital and sustainable agriculture. Modern machines and implements have little in common with the legendary farm tractors and agricultural diesel engines from Allgaier, Deutz, and Eicher of yore. They’re powerful computer systems that work in tandem with versatile electronic assistants, which process data like soil moisture, soil type, working depth, and attachment, and use it to determine recommendations for the required additional ballast. In future, it’s quite possible that the combine harvester could be threshing grain while the farmer does the bookkeeping in the cab. In a joint research project called “Driver’s Cab 4.0”, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology is currently researching how an intelligent workplace could give the operator this freedom in harvesting operations.

Does the Electric Drive Train Stand a Chance in Modern Tractors?

Of course, the icing on the cake of modern tractor technology would be a drive train with electric propulsion – especially since new tractors have to comply with the Euro Stage V exhaust emission limits since January 1, 2020. It’s true that there already are concepts for a hybrid electric drive here and there, in which a generator converts the entire output of the combustion engine into electrical power for the electric motor. However, a pure battery-electric drive has so far not been able to replace the diesel, at least in the heavy weight classes. After all, a tractor has to be able to plow the fields twelve hours a day with a heavy load. Agricultural experts have calculated that the batteries required would weigh around 15 tons. Such a vehicle wouldn’t stand a chance in the field.

The Future Could Belong to Fully Automated Swarm Robots

Drones help farmers with their work. Photo: John Deere

In a joint research project, agricultural manufacturer John Deere and the Technical University of Kaiserslautern recently demonstrated what future the electric tractor might be headed for. The 8.5-ton, 400-hp demo tractor draws power from the public grid via a cable from a mobile transformer at the edge of the field. The cable, which can be up to 1,000 meters long, runs on a drum permanently installed on the vehicle. The cable is automatically unwound and rewound during the journey. A robotic arm places it next to the first lane with the utmost precision and picks it up again in the next lane. A computer calculates the ideal lane and controls the drive and robotics applications. And how do farmers imagine their future in 2030? The Bitkom study has some exciting answers to this question: 46 percent of those surveyed expect fully automated field robots that independently detect weeds, diseases, or pests. 38 percent think that unmanned agricultural machinery will be operating independently in the fields.

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