What do all autonomous cars on the roads and the streets of our cities have in common? They are glittering starlets of style and design. Their slick skins describe the dream of a brave new world of self-driving cars. A world in which we travel noiselessly from A to B with little more than a hum – and that’s probably why they look like escapees from a sci-fi movie, especially the concept cars. In stark contrast, their autonomous country cousins are brutish, misshaped giants. Quasimodo needs no pretty make-up and clothes. What he needs is more eyes, more tentacles and more feelers to work alone and free himself from dependence on human beings.
A tractor or combine could never be autonomous without cutting-edge telemetry and guidance systems in every imaginable nook and cranny. Cameras, laser rangefinders, radar sensors and LiDAR scanning make them fit for any terrain and able to avoid every obstacle that stands in their way. Sensor-guided agricultural machines are the backbone of precision farming.
Less is more.
The sweet-scented air of the countryside. This traditional, ironic description of the acrid stench of slurry, in farmyards and spread as liquid manure on the fields, may soon disappear. Instead of smothering fields and meadows with nitrates from the back-ends of cows, the smart agricultural machines of tomorrow will spread it precisely, and only where and when it is needed. Every square metre of every field will be optimised for more effective and efficient management. State-of-the-art field management is the countryside counterpart of optimised urban mobility. The ability to reap the richest harvest from a minimised investment of time and effort. Farming lore and traditions are now obsolete, what matters today is help from the skies: satellites.
Big Data Acker.
Der Landwirt 4.0 zerlegt ein Feld in viele Dimensionen. Jede Dimension spiegelt einen bestimmten Aspekt wieder, etwa Art des Bodens, Gehalt von Nährstoffen oder Bepflanzung des Feldes. Ein Teil dieser Informationen stammt von Satellitenbildern und GPS-Daten. Übereinander gelegt, bilden diese Dimensionen ein komplexes Gefüge – den wahren Zustand des Ackers, der immer in Echtzeit abrufbar ist. Wie bei einem autonomen Auto in der Stadt, das auf Grundlage von Staudaten seine Route optimiert, wird so die Menge an Düngemittel je Teilstück des Feldes und des Pflanzenwachstums bestimmt. Man stelle sich vor, ein Auto würde die optimale Route nicht nur aufgrund von Verkehrsaufkommen, sondern auch auf Grundlage von Straßenbelag, Ampelschaltungen und schönsten optischen Eindrücken optimieren. Ist am Ende die Landwirtschaft 4.0 ein Ideengeber für die unausgeschöpften Potenziale selbstfahrender Autos?
The big bulls are still calves.
Modern combine harvesters are enormously powerful monsters on double tyres as tall as a man. With a swathe width of 12 metres, they can harvest seven hectares of crops in a single hour – in more familiar terms, that’s around ten football pitches. This is not because these leviathans charge around fields like raging bulls – even though 650 hp gives them the power to do it – but because they rarely sleep before the harvest is home. Now, the future of these machines sees them bringing this spectacular performance entirely without a helping hand at the controls. Just like their cousins on streets of our cities, autonomous agricultural machines are still at an early stage of development. In the spring of this year, the first autonomous, unmanned combine harvester was seen on the fields of the Russian republic of Tatarstan. The harvest was to be gathered in without any aid of human hands.
August saw the presentation of a cabless, autonomous row crop tractor concept in the USA: the Case IH Magnum. Operating such tractors in fleets promises immensely increased productivity. ‘Multiple autonomous tractors can work as one fleet or simultaneously in multiple sub-fleets assigned to separate fields, each assigned with preprogrammed maps and prescriptions. So you could have one tractor pulling a chisel plough followed closely by another one operating a planter.’ The entire fleet could be controlled and supervised from a desktop computer. Or from a portable tablet interface, while the farmer controls the rest of the fleet from another tractor. The video from Case IH is an excellent demonstration of the concept.
Where are the clouds?
The end-to-end connectivity of Agriculture 4.0 lets manufacturers of agricultural machines and software developers dream of enormous profits. Even concerns like SAP want to get their piece of this appetising cake. After all, at the end of the day, it’s all about handling data streams that will soon exceed even petabyte volumes. Is this a field that could yield a rich harvest with the expertise of Daimler AG?
If the near future foresees machines communicating with each other, or with a server ‘down on the farm’, it needs service providers who can efficiently and effectively manage the flood of data this generates. Will every farm soon have a data centre set up in the barn, or will everything take place in the cloud? Both of these options are hard to envisage in Germany, which is still a rural backwater in terms of high-speed, broadband coverage and Internet infrastructures. Once again, the front-runners will be found in the USA, Canada and Russia – and Germany will remain ranked as an ‘also ran’. And, as has so often been the case in the past, technological leadership will bring them all a clear competitive edge.
One particular problem will remain unsolved for a long time to come: an aspect common to all agricultural machines. They all guzzle fuel. Electric drivetrain concepts in an agricultural context? Pie in the sky – for now. Even though leading tractor manufacturer John Deere unveiled the prototype of an electrically-powered tractor with an 850-kilogram battery in March of this year, it will not reach market maturity until at least 2025. In fact, in the view of John Deere, a fully-electric tractor doesn’t even make sense.
Instead, the engines of the future will be multi-fuel hybrids that automatically recognise what they are fed: diesel, organic fuels or electric power. Just like John Deere has done out on the fields, Daimler AG has also shown its true pioneering spirit with an electromobility solution for the road transport segment – the innovative Urban eTruck concept. Out in the fields, however, the sounds of silence and birdsong will not be heard for many a year to come.