Current areas of application and processes in agriculture
There is no exact definition of precision agriculture or precision farming that is recognised across the board. The terms are used to describe various areas of agriculture. The concept represents more than just technology for dealing with variable local conditions – it is also about designing the entire process chain and managing information. It involves a combination of different components. Precision farming incorporates automatic data recording as a basis, section-specific equipment for all crop cultivation activities, fleet management (location, route planning, machine data monitoring) and field robotics (automated implement control for manned and unmanned vehicles).
In principle, a distinction is made between online and offline processes. Field potential and application maps are generated in advance then transmitted – often manually – in separate work steps to the tractor’s terminal. This is what is referred to as the offline process. The machines are then guided by the stored GPS data to perform the crop cultivation tasks. Therefore, having a stable GPS signal is essential for autonomous driving and steered implements. As part of the online process, the data is captured at the exact moment the task is carried out. During plant protection activities, for example, information about the crop is recorded by sensor equipment mounted on the front of the tractor. Based on the information gathered, the controls for the attached sprayer are influenced via specific target values. The information is exchanged in a split second via electronic communications between the relevant components. Similar processes can be used when spreading fertiliser. Good sensor equipment that draws on different processes is therefore required. This enables information on the nitrogen supply, weed infestation, biomass level and disease infestation to be detected. Optical sensors utilise the property of plants to absorb and reflect less red light during photosynthesis. This enables the active biomass to be determined. In near infrared spectroscopy (NIR), the opposite effect is used. Plant structures reflect near infrared light, which is not present on the spectrum visible to human eyes. It produces a characteristic reflection spectrum, which indicates the condition of the crops on the field. To assess the presence of disease, thermal sensors can be used to measure the surface temperature of leaves, which enables healthy leaves to be distinguished from diseased leaves when a fungal infestation is present.
In the past, farmers have often been accused of not producing enough documentation. A lack of time, valid measurements and standardised formats has tended to be the reason. Ultimately, the data also needs to be evaluated and interpreted. Things are much simpler now thanks to the modern technology. In order to transform the measured values into information, the data must first be recorded and stored. In precision agriculture, this takes place automatically as each task is completed. Using the machine’s GPS signal, the data can also be allocated to a specific position on the field and presented on various maps. The main areas of application are yield maps, which are based on information gathered from harvesters, and vegetation maps, which incorporate satellite data. Another option is to incorporate soil sampling results so they can be illustrated on the field map. These map resources enable crop cultivation activities to be planned and implemented in a targeted manner.
In the future, the momentum for digitalisation is bound to be even stronger. The development of field and barn robots on farms is far from over. Robots are often seen in barns nowadays, but they’re less common in the field. Machines are capable of sowing a field or controlling weeds with the help of sensors and achieve a similar acreage performance to their larger relatives. There is still plenty of room for development in the robotics domain. In the software domain, providers who can adapt dynamically to the needs of both their users and the industry are the ones that will stay the course.