With a mixture of fascination and the unwavering concentration of a man who has dedicated his life to science, Dr. Jörn Selbeck navigates a buzzing three-armed mini-drone equipped with six propellers, called “copter,” off the ground and into the air. Selbeck, a research engineer at the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy (ATB) in Potsdam, Germany, watches this four-kilogram copter floating over the Institute’s 27-hectare experimental crop field. In moments, the copter has reached an altitude of fifty meters, broadcasting back images of sun-drenched fields of corn, wheat, winter oilseed rape, and sorghum, as well as apple and cherry trees.
From the ground, Selbeck views this panorama live through the monitor he holds. He’s impressed. “Copters like this can benefit the future of farming tremendously,” Selbeck explains. “They can help farmers detect weeds by collecting precise field images from above. This allows growers to apply crop protection with much greater accuracy – only targeting the spots where weeds have appeared.”
This approach, called precision farming, can provide an entirely new level of economic benefits, Selbeck explains. “The farmers save money by using less crop protection, and they can detect weeds at an early stage, which could lead to higher yields in the end.”
With precision farming, the farmers save money by using less crop protection, and they can detect weeds at an early stage, which could lead to higher yields in the end.
Flying eyes in the sky
Loaded with standard cameras that depict red, green and blue colors, and special-purpose high-resolution camera sensors equipped with thermal imaging technology, the copter is capable of accurately recording a wide variety of data critical to agricultural research. For the team of researchers from the ATB, effective deployment of copters offers multiple cutting-edge benefits — with an efficiency and ease of use that is unprecedented.
“The copter’s high resolution cameras help us to generate field maps. Then we can provide real-time estimates during the cultivation period – gauging which crops and trees need water, fertilizer or crop protection in order for crops to grow strongly while saving resources and thereby protecting the environment.” Compared to satellites or planes, which can also make high-resolution pictures, farmers can activate copters quickly, says Selbeck: “Copters can be deployed with flexibility and ease of use to collect specific information, on a particular field and at a specific time.”
U.S. citrus farmers in Florida are already making use of drone copters in the state of Florida to monitor the condition of oranges and grapefruits. Across the Atlantic, some farmers in Germany are going a step further and use copters to combat the European Corn Borer Disease (Ostrinia nubilalis) by precisely distributing beneficial organisms, like Trichogramma eggs, for crop protection over infested crops.
In the near future, farmers world-wide could utilize these highly precise helpers. Nevertheless, Selbeck advises farmers to think about working together with external service providers. “Copters range anywhere from 500 euros to up to 80,000 euros. They will get cheaper in the long run, but – depending on the size of a farm – they can be a big investment for farmers. Growers should also consider the time they will need to familiarize themselves with the techniques needed to control a copter. Working with service providers can save them both time and money.”
Despite the benefits copters could provide, Selbeck also stresses that the role of the farmer will remain paramount: “Digital and precision farming will support, but never replace, our farmers. Tomorrow’s agriculture could never exist without their know-how and experience, which is often passed down from one generation to the next. Nonetheless, it will be of great support if the farmer can obtain decision-making aids that are tailored specifically to his or her current needs.”
As the benefits of digital farming grow increasingly apparent, Bayer is also driving this development. “Digital farming gives superpowers to our farmers,” explains Tobias Menne, Digital Farming Lead at Bayer. “We are committed to helping them implement agronomic decisions with unprecedented accuracy, efficiency and ease.”
Predictive models and data will enable better agronomic decisions for a given field than a farmer can with traditional experience and local knowledge.
Menne sees digital farming techniques as a big opportunity for today’s growers: “Predictive models and data will enable better agronomic decisions for a given field than a farmer can with traditional experience and local knowledge. Digital farming is not a substitute for hard work and generations of knowledge. It just minimizes the risk of making sub-optimal agronomic decisions – allowing farmers to be at their best from planting to harvest.”
Swarm farming on the ground
As extraordinary as new technological innovations are in the skies, they can also assist farmers on the ground – and even with their crops.
With six small aluminum legs, the robot-prototype Prospero is able to move over crop fields, drill holes into a ground and put seeds in place. Inventor and engineer David Dorhout, originally from the U.S. state of Iowa, built this agri robot to demonstrate the concept of swarm farming. “It is like breaking a large, autonomous tractor into smaller pieces – into a swarm of autonomous robots,” says Dorhout. “The farmer acts like a shepherd, giving his swarm instructions. Then his robots carry out these orders by communicating with each other through infrared signals. These future farm assistants are even able to make precise planning decisions – meter by meter, centimeter by centimeter.”
For example, these robots can inform each other about where they detect weeds and which field locations need herbicides. As a result, these robots treat only the specific spots.“This method doesn’t only save the farmer money. It also avoids weed resistance problems proactively,” Dorhout points out.
The farmer acts like a shepherd, giving his swarm instructions. Then his robots carry out these orders by communicating with each other through infrared signals.
The evolution from large to small-scale machines became especially visible to Dorhout during a farming conference: “I met an 80-year-old man who started farming with horses. Then he used tractors, and then gasoline-filled tractors. He came to this show because he wanted to see Prospero. He was interested in the future of farming.”
Digital farming does have its skeptics, though. Dorhout has met with several farmers who expressed concern about his new technology. “Many assumed I would try to replace the farmer with my robot invention,” Dorhout remembers. “As if anybody could! No matter how innovative, an invention can never replace farmers. It can only offer more efficient and effective ways for them to apply their knowledge and hard-earned experience.”
Dorhout offers a historical comparison: “Just as the introduction of a tractor changed the relationship of a farmer with his equipment from being a horseman to a mechanic and driver, this will change the role of a farmer from being a driver to an instructor, which robots will pick up.” He also points out that agricultural robots provide massive time savings: “They alleviate the physical work of farmers, which gives them more time to focus on the economic part of their business.”
Drag-and-drop farming in a home garden
Agricultural robots can also benefit the general public. One example is FarmBot, a robot farming system that individuals can set-up themselves in small areas like home gardens or on rooftops.
The inventor of FarmBot is Rory Aronson, an engineer based in northern California: “The FarmBot precisely sows seeds in any density and pattern the customer wants and then waters them efficiently – the exact amount that each plant needs, based on its type, age, soil condition and the local weather.” FarmBot also has a soil sensor that finds out how the farmer’s garden changes over time. An attached camera detects weeds “and as soon as diseases emerge, FarmBot buries them under the soil.”
Sources: Statista, AgFunder, CrunchBase
FarmBot allows consumers to grow a wide variety of vegetables, such as lettuce, broccoli and peppers, within the same area and at the same time. To accomplish this, the software behind FarmBot, a web-based interface, comes into play: “Currently, there are 33 common crops, such as potatoes, broccoli and pepper, loaded into its software,” notes Aronson. “The user can drag and drop his desired crops into a map on his computer. Then, he simply presses the synchronize-button and FarmBot starts to plant accordingly.” Through a corresponding app, the user can adjust his crop plan and see it applied in his backyard.
Precision Farming is the Future
The FarmBot technology and machine is open-source: Anybody is allowed to use the technology and plans, and even modify them, free of charge. “The world’s population is growing rapidly, and, with that growth, we must produce more food. By sharing our technology, we empower people to reach this goal,” explains Aronson.
All new high tech inventions represent the dynamic development of digital farming. In the near future, these cutting-edge tools could support farmers and consumers to provide efficient, cost-saving and safe crop production. They also incorporate the possibility to safely, economically and more easily increase food production – and set the course for a high-tech farming revolution.
A Galactic Cooperation
When it comes to embracing innovation and collaboration to provide competitive advantages to its farmers and customers, Bayer proves the sky is the limit – literally.
In May 2016, Bayer and the aerospace technology company Planetary Resources, based in Redmond, Washington, USA, signed a memorandum of understanding concerning the development of applications and products based on satellite images. Bayer intends to purchase data from Planetary Resources, and then parse the information and imagery to create new agricultural products and improve existing ones. The collaboration will be part of the Digital Farming initiative at Bayer.
By harnessing satellite imagery’s ability to reveal – in real time – weather patterns, Bayer will offer farmers to more precision in timing their irrigation systems, which will lead to reduced water consumption. Bayer will also be able to provide planting date recommendations, as well as replanting advice and accurate assessments of specific soil’s water-holding capacity.