Naturally smart – How digital technologies are changing agriculture

The digital transformation of agriculture is taking place both in the barn and out in the fields – using cameras, chips, sensors and modern agricultural machinery. And in the form of data, thanks to which the work can be done in a more targeted and efficient manner.

Autonomous machines are already capable of doing much of the work in the barn today. A self-propelled cleaning machine mucks out while the farmer evaluates yield analyses on the computer. Not only do the cows trot to the milking parlour on their own, they are also milked autonomously. At the same time, the animals are fed precisely the quantity of concentrated feed each one requires. This is made possible by Internet-enabled and extremely robust sensors that they wear on their bodies. The animals’ movement, sleeping pattern, temperature and other medical parameters are also recorded in this way. In the barn of the future, this data may monitor even more than the animals’ health. According to Prof. Heinz Bernhardt, Professor of Agricultural Systems Engineering at the Weihenstephan campus of the Technical University of Munich (TUM), consumers could also benefit: by producing individual cows' milk in combination with a dairy that is also autonomous, it is conceivable that specific consumer needs can be served. This is because the composition of the milk, its tolerance and potential additional benefits, such as a particularly high melatonin concentration for falling asleep better, would then be printed directly on the milk carton.

“From a purely technical point of view, a cowshed can already be operated without humans.”

Prof. Dr. Heinz Bernhardt, Professor of Agricultural Systems Engineering

If the professor is to be believed, this scenario is much closer than some think. “From a purely technical point of view, a cowshed can already be operated without humans.” He estimates that at least 50 per cent of all new milking systems sold are already automated, and barn cleaning equipment reminiscent of oversized vacuum cleaner robots has also long been available. In the same way, cameras, microphones and chips on animals are already part of everyday life in the barn. When Bernhardt is asked whether all these autonomous and smart technologies are a threat to large numbers of jobs, the otherwise matter-of-fact agricultural scientist laughs. “The opposite is true,” says the professor, who, along with his father, manages the 350-acre farm he grew up on. “Technology is combatting the massive labour shortage we face in the agricultural sector.”

With this statement, Bernhardt names one of the most important arguments for advancing automation. The fact that this trend is more advanced in the barn itself than outside is mainly due to legal reasons. Since permitting robots to drive around outdoors is riskier, European liability law has so far prevented autonomous, that is, driverless, tractors from tilling the fields unsupervised – as is already common practice in Japan, for example. But this issue is also relevant in Europe, as research activities at the University of Hohenheim or Berlin’s Humboldt-Universität show, for instance.

Smart technologies enable sustainability and reduce the workload

In any case, automation is only one of several subsectors that can be subsumed under the term “smart farming”. Others include the sensor-based observation of plants and animals and the resulting high-precision cultivation of fields or handling of animals. Optimum benefit comes from combining these possibilities, as Jörg Migende, Head of Digital Farming at BayWa AG, which specialises in agricultural trade and services, explains. According to him, in addition to autonomous agricultural machinery, data and algorithms also play an important role. “They allow the machines, and therefore the farmer, to produce more sustainably,” Migende says.

While the social component of smart farming is closely linked to automation that relieves farmers of day-to-day hard work, precision farming comes into play with respect to ecology and economy. Migende cites site-specific fertilisation as an example: the more targeted a farmer applies chemical or organic fertiliser, the lower the environmental impact – from nitrates, for example – and the costs. The same is true for other resources. However, this can only work precisely if we know exactly how much fertiliser, water or pesticide is needed at any one time in a specific area of a field for specific crops to grow as desired. In turn, this quantity depends on a wide variety of factors: What is the condition of the plants? What pests threaten them? How was and will be the weather?

Efficient field management thanks to data

The answers to these and other questions are provided by satellites, drones, and sensors on vehicles or in the field. Increasingly accurate “remote sensing” via satellite or drone allows farmers to better estimate pest infestations or yields, for example, and to apply pesticides or fertilisers more precisely. High-precision and therefore more sustainable field management is also the goal of ConstellR – a “start-up that uses its own fleet of satellites to measure soil health from space,” explains Cem Özdemir, Germany’s Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture. With this system, the founders aim to improve water usage in agriculture. The project is currently being funded by his ministry.

Self-propelled pesticide sprayer in a field at the experimental station Berge of the Institute of Agricultural and Urban Ecological Projects at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (IASP)

With the aid of data collected by a range of different means, algorithms and artificial intelligence calculate the required amount of fertiliser, pesticide or water and pass this information on to agricultural machinery capable of flexible metering. “At the same time, this data facilitates business management evaluations and precise documentation that meets increasingly demanding government requirements,” says Migende, who is familiar with such software systems from his own company: in 2017, BayWa AG acquired a majority stake in the agricultural start-up Vista, where 30 scientists are now working on data models for the combined use of satellite, soil and weather data.

In future, ever-improving sensor technology will be able to provide enough data to create “digital twins” of fields, plants or animals, in other words, exact digital models in which measures can be tested virtually prior to be implemented. “This makes it possible to evaluate a wide variety of factors and to anticipate analyses that have until now been carried out after the fact,” explains Professor Bernhardt. The farmer could then, for instance, use the digital twin to virtually run through whether the use of a particular fertiliser would bring the desired benefit.

Market growth and investments bring out potentials

The growth prospects of smart farming are developing in line with the potential applications. “The market is almost infinite and German manufacturers have played a leading role to date,” notes Migende. One of them is Claas from a city near Bielefeld in western Germany. As one of the world’s leading agricultural machinery manufacturers, the company increased its sales by 19 per cent to around EUR 4.8 billion in fiscal year 2021. Globally, the market volume could rise to more than USD 34 billion by 2026, according to BIS Research. Both hardware and software solutions are playing an important role in this.

“The market is almost infinite and German manufacturers have played a leading role to date.”

Jörg Migende, Head of Digital Farming at BayWa AG

Their relevance was also confirmed by a representative survey conducted by Bitkom this year (2022). According to this, around 80 per cent of the farmers surveyed are already using at least one digital technology or process. These include GPS-controlled agricultural machinery, drones and robots, as well as apps and farm or herd management systems.

As far as agricultural machinery and other technologies designed for use in the field and in the barn are concerned, robustness plays a particularly important role. The chips, sensors and high-precision electrical and electronic components have to withstand the most adverse conditions – including on animals or in the ground. This is why smart farming technology and equipment need to be customised and reliably protected. This is provided by Wevo’s tailor-made products, such as those used to pot and encapsulate components that are installed in smart livestock monitoring systems.

G7 Agriculture Ministers’ Meeting 2022 at the University of Hohenheim (Stuttgart, Germany): Federal Minister of Agriculture Cem Özdemir is shown an agricultural robot

If the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) has its way, even more farmers will soon be opting for smart farming. “Digitalisation leads to the reduced use of fertilisers, pesticides and energy, as well as improvements in animal welfare and biodiversity,” the ministry believes, which has therefore launched an investment program. A total of EUR 816 million have been made available for this purpose since 2021 and through to 2024. According to Federal Minister Özdemir, a special focus is on organic farming. With BMEL funding, robots are being developed, “that fight weeds with the aid of AI-supported image recognition – and do so purely mechanically using heat, laser or electricity.”

Legislation, data transmission, energy supply – the challenges

In order for smart farming to play out its strengths in terms of optimal networking of data and machines across the board, there are still a number of challenges to be overcome. In addition to legal requirements, which in Germany sometimes differ from federal state to federal state, researchers are primarily concerned with technical issues. One of the most important of these is the processing power of computers and therefore the speed at which they can process data. For instance, in order to optimally apply pesticides, the relevant machine must know exactly which weeds are growing where. In theory, a camera at the front of the tractor captures the situation so that the sprayer at the rear can dose the appropriate agent correctly. In practice, however, the speed at which the images are processed is slower than the speed at which the tractor travels. One solution could be a drone that flies ahead of the tractor and sends back images, but even then, the faster the on-board computer is able to process such data, the more useful it is.

In addition to the new 5G mobile communications standard, which speeds up communication between drones and tractors, for example, the industry is pinning a lot of hope on the latest generation of quantum computers. The quantum computer of a start-up in Canada recently demonstrated that huge leaps in performance are still possible here: within 36 microseconds, it solved a highly complex task that would take the world’s second most powerful conventional supercomputer around 9,000 years.

There is also still a need for research and development in the area of energy supply. Most agricultural equipment is a mobile system that tends to get heavier and more energy-hungry the more smart technology it has on board. Sensors located deep in the soil of a field are also difficult to supply with power.

So there are many issues that researchers are working very hard to solve – but there’s also much that has already been achieved to exploit the full potential of smart farming to benefit the environment, animal welfare and farmers, too. In the end, consumers could also benefit: It’s conceivable that the concept behind the individualisation of milk in the still fictitious barn of the future could be extended to many other foods. People could then select vegetables not only on the basis of their appearance, explains agronomist Bernhardt, but, for example, on the basis of their protein content or degree of pungency.

Wevo solutions – Reliable protection for smart farming technologies

Whether in the barn, on the animal or in the field – sensors, RFID chips, microphones or cameras deployed in state-of-the-art technologies used in agriculture must withstand extreme conditions. Customised compounds from Wevo seal these sensitive electronic components permanently, minimise moisture ingress and cushion and protect against vibration. The very good adhesion of polyurethanes to most substrates also ensures dependable mechanical and structural integrity and prevents premature field failures due to fractures or prolonged exposure to water. In addition, the products can be customised with respect to their mechanical properties, from soft to hard. This allows them to be used as potting or encapsulation compounds for a very wide variety of components, including motion sensors, antennas or even batteries.

Press release “Monitoring livestock: Wevo products protect sensitive components”

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Image sources: Image 1: Daniel Balakov (, tostphoto (; Image 2: Thomas Trutschel (photothek); Image 3: Thomas Trutschel (photothek)

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