New intelligence in the field

Robotics and swarm technology

Larger working widths, more powerful engines or greater throughput - quantitative growth was and is an important aspect in (agricultural) technology. And even if not everyone admits it: Besides the usefulness, it's also a matter of appreciation of the sheer size. Thomas Herlitzius and his team are taking a different route. "Field swarm" is the interesting sounding name for the technology being researched by an interdisciplinary consortium. Herlitzius, Professor of Agricultural System Technology at the Technical University in Dresden, Germany, is the spokesman for the collective consisting of the university, business partners and the Fraunhofer Institute for Traffic and Infrastructure Systems (IVI) in Dresden.   

Departure from maximum individual capacity 

The principle seems plausible: Instead of one large machine, several flexible, combined units are used. The field swarm consists of automated and self-propelled units. For example, the grubber is no longer a single unit with a nine metre working width. Instead, several smaller units are (virtually) interconnected. Depending on the working field size, it is not necessary to provide the maximum capacity every time; it can be less. That protects the soil and saves energy. And alternative drive energy is planned for the field swarm anyway. Agricultural system technician Herlitzius, a pragmatic visionary, and his team warn against unrealistic, i.e. premature, expectations. 

"Triggered by a technological innovation, first comes the peak of unrealistic expectations, followed by the valley of disappointments", says Herlitzius citing the "Hype-Cycle model" of the US market research company Gartner. Ideally, this is then followed by the path to enlightenment, which leads to the plateau of productivity. 

Capacity utilisation as target 

To put it less metaphorically: Perseverance is required. The research of the consortium coordinated by the Technical University in Dresden is directed at capacity utilisation of the existing capacities instead of individual top performance. Farmers and consumers benefit with robotics as the highest level of automation: Producers with resource-conserving effort and consumers, as the new technology enables an extremely reliable tracking of raw materials in foodstuffs. 
Automated processes suitable for use in practice that go beyond the swarms, including steering systems, have reached the "plateau of productivity". However, in agricultural soil tillage we are just beginning, explains Herlitzius and introduces a complicated technical term to the discussion: "Collaborative Robotics", or Cobotics for short. Humans and machines move more closely together again here. Machines support and correct human work. For example, in industry a gripper arm gives the technician at the assembly line the parts to be installed and nudges the worker if necessary to avoid injuries. Collaborative robotics suitable for use in practice doesn't exist yet in agriculture. 

Initial approaches are assistance systems in which human beings almost become a "sensor", for example in combine harvester adjustment, and confirm decisions ("headland management turn").  Scientists evaluate this as "hardly variable and always with a certain context". Real collaboration adapts to the respective current situation and the competence of the human being. Until this is possible, a great deal still has to happen in the development departments of the agricultural machinery manufacturers.

Urgent need to clarify data ownership 

When asked about the options for artificial intelligence (AI) in agriculture, Herlitzius rejects its usual definition as self-learning information technology as too far-reaching: "Artificial intelligence is primarily based on statistical methods and not - as is often depicted - on an independent world of thought". The latter continues to be reserved for human beings.  
Artificial intelligence is mainly a question of computer capacities with which the options can be checked extremely quickly.  In addition to computer capacity, statistical methods of AI also required a broad, high-quality data basis. And that is lacking in agricultural technology, explains Herlitzius and adds as spokesman for the scientific consortium: "We are just beginning to collect and therefore are having a serious discussion on the control over data. He says there is a clear answer to data sovereignty: "It must lie with the farmer or the machine owner." 

Progress occasionally begins easily in a literal sense: According to Herlitzius, the Field Robot Event during the DLG-Feldtage (Field Days) is excellently suited for testing navigation of agricultural machines on a small scale. The scientist from Dresden attaches great importance to the entire research of his team and its partners being directed at promoting sustainability in agriculture - from efficient use of natural and operating resources to a transparent value-added chain to more biodiversity. A thought that responsible farmers the world over are likely to share and that is reflected in the guiding theme of AGRITECHNICA 2019: "Global Farming - Local Responsibility". 

At a glance

  • Field swarm: Flexible smaller units instead of large individual capacities
  • Cobotics (Collaborative Robotics) connects humans beings and machines 
  • Artificial intelligence is primarily based on computer capacities 
  • Automated soil tillage is still in its infancy 
  • Sustainability as objective of field swarm, cobotics and digitalisation  

Responsibility for a limited resource

Irrigation in practice

What do farmers in rural Brandenburg and producers in northern Namibia have in common? One answer might be "A lot of sand in their soil". Which is true. The answer "Not a lot of water" would also be correct. However, what is true for globally networked agriculture as a whole particularly applies to both of these cases: while the challenges may bear some similarity, they can only be overcome locally. (A lack of) water is a prime example of this.  [learn more]

Soil under pressure

Approaches for its protection

The definition leaves no room for doubt: "Central basis of life for plants and directly or indirectly for human beings and animals." But it was clear even before the entry in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia: the soil is the basis for everything. And the reason why it must be protected can already be derived from this realisation. One of the threats, if not the most important one, is erosion, i.e. the loss of fertile soil through wind or water. [learn more]

A clever and mixed approach is needed

Sustainable crop protection as a solution

Human medicine shows the way. The times of "more helps more" are long gone, if they ever existed at all. It is no different with crop protection. Today, it is not unusual for many farmers to combine state-of-the-art active substances and traditional but optimised methods of weed and pest control - even on individual fields [learn more]

Help from above

Intelligently networking digital systems

"It almost certainly won't be less work initially", says Prof. Patrick Ole Noack putting paid to any wishful thinking: the scientist refers to digital crop production, including instruments such as satellites and drones along with sensor systems, as "indication systems". [learn more]

After harvesting

Safely storing yields

The statistical data reveal an extensive spread, but one aspect appears to be certain: depending on region and type of culture, significant crop yields are lost after harvesting, particularly in regions with supply problems. These losses determine whether firms operate profitably and in many cases even whether people go hungry. [learn more]


Fertiliser management for the pros

Due to the fertiliser ordinance, the subject of "fertilisation" is more present than ever, and that far beyond the roundtables. Everyone is talking about it, but not everyone bases what they say on facts, and on a political level there are indications of further restrictions. [learn more]

Setting off to a new world

Innovatively managing process chains

In all honesty: The term "process chains" is only partially accurate. Strictly speaking, the chains are interlinked and form a Network - if everything goes well. [learn more]

New knowledge for the world

DLG-AgrifutureLab with agricultural start-ups

For start-ups based in Germany, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWI) encourages participation in a joint stand. There, as in the AgrifutureLab and the related Start-Up Wall, it's a matter during the AGRITECHNICA from 12 to 18 November of the right people meeting each other. [learn more]

New intelligence in the field

Robotics and swarm technology

Larger working widths, more powerful engines or greater throughput - quantitative growth was and is an important aspect in (agricultural) technology. And even if not everyone admits it: Besides the usefulness, it's also a matter of appreciation of the sheer size. Thomas Herlitzius and his team are taking a different route. [learn more]