Rutronik News

Asparagus from happy drones

  Newsletter Article

Farmer Karl-Heinz is sitting at the breakfast table. In front of him is a cup of strong coffee, because Karl-Heinz is just not himself before the first coffee of the day. He has a tablet in his hands, tapping and swiping here, there, and everywhere. Almost immediately, the buzz of three drones can be heard outside as they take off and head in the direction of the rising sun. They monitor Karl-Heinz’ fields and report any dangers or critical changes directly to his tablet. At the same time, fully interconnected robots roll out onto the fields to work through the daily list of tasks: sowing the seeds, removing the weeds, and tackling the pests.

Karl-Heinz cracks his knuckles. He will soon head out to the fields himself. But suddenly a warning flashes up on his screen: His tablet is screaming "Connection lost" at him. Outside the robots come to a standstill and the drones sink to the ground. "Dammed data network," curses Karl-Heinz. Agriculture 4.0 could be so good if it weren't for the dead zones on the German map, where mobile data networks are either not available or are severely restricted. Farmers like our fictitious Karl-Heinz would certainly disagree with Germany's Federal Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek at any rate. At the end of last year, she flippantly remarked that it isn't necessary for every blade of grass in the country to have 5G coverage - but this is precisely what gives the agricultural sector significant advantages.

In the Science Robotics journal at least, Senthold Asseng and Frank Asche from the University of Florida forecast that the farmer chugging around his fields in his tractor will become an endangered species. Just like the field of Industry 4.0 - which receives much more attention - the future belongs to robots, drones, sensors, and cameras. The scenario of both agricultural researchers envisages that robots will one day weed the fields, spray the pesticides, and gather the harvest. Sensors will transmit live data on temperature, humidity, pH value, and soil nutrients. Their data will be supplemented by drones and satellites equipped with cameras and measurement technology, enabling them to supply data on potentially vulnerable zones in the field.

The data gathered in this way will then be fed into a central system, which in turn will use it as a basis to recommend possible courses of action to farmer Karl-Heinz or perhaps even tackle the problems by itself. The technology is already available, so the individual components just need to be connected to a system - and of course the requisite mobile communication technology. Here in particular lies a big stumbling block for Agriculture 4.0 as the network coverage shouldn't lead to some farmers being disadvantaged by their location merely because they work in regions where the network is poorly developed, as is currently the case in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, for example.

The Federal Network Agency may have compelled the bidders in the auction process for 5G licenses to supply at least 98 percent of all households in each federal state, all autobahns, the most important highways, and the most important stretches of railroad with at least 100 megabits per second by the year 2022, but this figure can easily be achieved even without taking agricultural businesses into consideration. It is conceivable that some dead zones will remain for the same reason that they exist in the first place - it is simply not worth the network operators' while to erect masts here. In such cases, 5G wouldn't even reach the home, let alone every blade of grass.

However, the concept of interconnected agriculture is a promising one. Firstly, because drones and robots are much gentler on the soil than the heavy farm machinery, which is good for plant growth. Secondly, they can be used round the clock. Thirdly, the sowing process can be much better tailored to local conditions, which often fluctuate, so fields would be smaller in size, but still managed more efficiently. And lastly, the automated documentation of all processes ensures that the supply chain can be continuously traced from the field to the fork.

The researchers from Florida estimate that the first farmers will be able to use most of the aforementioned technology within the next four to five years. Here at Rutronik24, we definitely cannot wait and look forward to eating asparagus from happy drones instead of drinking milk from happy cows.