Within the framework of the ECSEL-JU project Aggregate Farming in the Cloud (AFarCloud), a virtual terminal was developed that can help turn existing tractors into smart machines, capable of semi-autonomous operation. This innovation could make agriculture more sustainable and counteract skilled labor shortage in rural areas.
Bringing laptops into field work
The farmer’s job starts in front of a computer screen: using a so-called Farm Management System, they create a “mission” for their tractor. Mapping out the day’s work, they decide if they want to harvest, irrigate, treat for plant disease, or prevent pests. The finished mission is then digitally transferred onto the tractor, telling the machine what to do. It moves over the field carrying out tasks, for example fertilization, based on soil analyses. Areas that are already sufficiently fertilized are skipped automatically. This precise mode of operation can help save resources like fertilizer, water or pesticides or allow farmers to only harvest crops that are already ripe. It bears the potential to make agriculture not only more profitable, but also greener.
To make all this possible, tractors must be equipped with the agricultural communication standard ISOBUS. The solutions developed within the recently finished EU- project AFarCloud builds on this standard to make tractors ready for precision farming.
More sustainable precision farming for all
About 60 European companies participated in the project, which was funded by the European Commission and national funding agencies like the FFG with a total of 28 million Euros. In three years, the consortium developed a platform for autonomous agriculture, which was tested in 11 demonstrators in Finland, Spain, Sweden, Italy, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. It was shown that the vendor-independent plug-and-play solution enabled more precise maneuvers in existing tractors.
“Compared to a new acquisition, our solution could help reduce financial investments for farmers significantly and make sustainable agriculture accessible to a greater number of agribusinesses,” Martijn Rooker, Innovation Projects and Funding Manager at TTTech in Vienna, explains. Together with other project partners, he has successfully tested the digital platform in Italy. Among others, the technology in the Italian demonstrator was provided by AVL and TTControl, a joint venture of TTTech and HYDAC International, which specializes in hardware and software platforms for mobile machinery.
As part of the project, TTControl developed a user interface, which allows the driver to keep an overview of all processes within the tractor. In addition, TTControl provided an IoT Gateway, which enables the tractor to exchange information with the cloud. After each completed task, new data are stored for future use, for example to maintain an overview of plant health, water usage or the state of the tractor itself. In the latter case, this can help prevent machine damage and costly repair works by making use of predictive maintenance.
Autonomy to counteract labor shortage
The tractor moves over the field independently, using GPS. Farmers can monitor its progress via an on-board terminal but rarely if ever have to intervene physically.
“Technically speaking, it is already possible for the machine to drive completely autonomously, but the legal framework is still undefined,” says Martijn Rooker. “One day tractors will surely be driving independently, but until then, a human operator always has to be on board.” According to Rooker, future farmers may even be able to rent autonomous tractor fleets temporarily, for example to bring in the harvest as efficiently as possible. This could help solve the acute problem of labor shortage in rural areas.
Even though agriculture still needs humans, digitalization has drastically changed the skills required to do the job. Rooker:” Farmers nowadays are much more proficient in IT than you might think. If you want to keep up, you have to stay on top of technological developments and acquire digital know-how.” Consequently, the innovation created within the AFarCloud project is thought to create great interests among modern farmers, even if it is still in the prototype stage.