With digitalization and smart farming, agriculture can become more environmentally friendly, as our examples show. […]
82 Percent of German farmers already use smart farming technologies or applications on their farms. This is the conclusion of a representative study published in 2020 on behalf of the digital association Bitkom, the German Farmers ‘ Association (DBV) and the Agricultural Pension Bank (LR). At the same time, according to the study, the vast majority of farmers see digitalization as an opportunity for greater sustainability in their farms. For example, 81 percent said that new technologies enabled more environmentally friendly production.
The fact that the response to smart farming is so positive among the farmers surveyed is probably related to the fact that many see climate change as a threat to their industry, but also a certain responsibility in the fight against it on their own.
A battle in which sensor-based technologies and data as well as the comprehensive expansion of 5G are of particular importance. Such technologies enable the use of drones that can monitor fields with the help of 5G networking and video cameras, thus making a significant contribution to the more targeted and resource-efficient use of water, fertilizers, pesticides and harvesting machines. A corresponding project on the use of drones in agriculture has already been launched at the Swiss Future Farm in Tänikon, Thurgau, Switzerland, in order to test relevant 5G applications. As part of this project, the fields are regularly flown over by small drones, which send the images of their video cameras over a 5G network to a central server.
The monitoring and evaluation of these images provide farmers with up-to-date situation reports that can help them quickly make targeted decisions about where action is required. For example, these drones can use multispectral cameras to provide images that can be used to determine the growth and nitrogen demand of plants. This enables farmers to apply specific fertilisation.
It is well known that in conventional farms fertilizers are usually sprayed evenly and at uniform times over the whole field. This leads to under – fertilisation in some places and over-fertilisation in others. In turn, overfertilisation can lead to substances such as phosphorus or nitrogen entering groundwater or surface water from the field in an undesirable manner. However, the increased use of precision farming methods would make it possible to apply fertilizers in more precise quantities and at spatially and temporally optimized intervals, i.e. precisely at the point and in the quantity that is actually needed.
The application that allows farmers to control the amount of fertilizers on arable land is the Variable Rate Application (VRA). VRA combines a variable rate control system with application devices. This can be used, among other things, to spray fertilizers at a specific time or place. The variable Rates are determined on the basis of previous measurements, for example by remote sensing or machine-mounted Sensors. For the VRA to work, additional components such as a DGPS receiver, a computer, suitable software and a controller are required.
In addition, if drones have an AI-based system, they are able to distinguish weeds from crops and support the targeted use of herbicides and insecticides. These capabilities of drones are already being used in the management of test fields in Valthermond, the Netherlands. The aim of this project is to quickly and automatically detect and eliminate potato plants that grow invasively in sugar beet fields.
The implemented solution combines 5G with IoT, robotics, AI, and a smart computing platform. The images taken by field robots are sent via 5G to a server in The Hague, which is equipped with a powerful GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) and thus not only evaluates the images immediately with the help of AI, but also sends commands back to the robots in real time – for example, for the targeted removal of the weeds. The required mobile bandwidth of 120 Mbit / s upstream in the peak is not feasible without 5G.
A similar project, combining the benefits of ICT solutions and 5G networks, was launched in Crete with the aim of optimising irrigation there. The agricultural sector accounts for about 85 percent of the island’s freshwater consumption – in particular the irrigation of around 30 million olive trees. For the execution of the project, sensors are used that permanently monitor the soil condition.
These include parameters such as soil moisture and temperature as well as the salinity of the water. The sensor data obtained is sent to a central server and processed there, so that the exact amount of water required for irrigation can be determined. Farmers can access this data remotely and trigger the water supply at the touch of a button.
Another example of precise farming can be found in the field of fish farming. In Norway, salmon farmers use a concept called” fish-facing”. Cameras are used to observe the fishery in order to detect a parasite infestation in the fish earlier at 4K resolution. This increases productivity and reduces costs. The devices are connected to the land via underwater fiber optic cables and are managed by employees on boats.
The use of smart and precision farming technologies is essential for sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture. ICT solutions in conjunction with 5G networks make it possible to use important resources such as water, fertilizers and pesticides more carefully and precisely. In addition to cost savings for farmers through lower fuel consumption of agricultural machinery, productivity is also increased and end consumers receive higher quality food at an affordable price. Apart from that, the more modern technologies are per se more efficient. For example, 5G requires only a third of the energy compared to 4G transmission for the same amount of data, compared to 3G, 5G is even 20 times more energy efficient.
* Ingobert Veith is Director Public Policy at Huawei Technologies Germany.