From autonomous tractors to livestock monitoring.
The world population is growing steadily. In 2018, 7.7 billion people lived in the world, compared with 4.45 billion in 1980 and just 2.53 billion in 1950. But the area that we can use to produce food on earth is not growing with it. We must therefore use the areas that are available to us ever more efficiently and at the same time in a more environmentally friendly way. This is where agriculture can take advantage of new technologies.
What role do innovative technologies play in agriculture?
Agriculture is probably one of the most traditional and longest existing trades. Nevertheless, the sector is well advised to adopt innovative technologies and benefit from the opportunities offered by increasing automation, digitisation and networking.
One of these advances is the autonomous operation of agricultural vehicles. Here, agriculture can benefit in particular from developments in the automotive industry, and has a decisive advantage: There are no other road users on the field, making completely autonomous driving easier than it is in road traffic. The remote control of vehicles frees the farmer from the need to actively control the tractor or even be on site so he can focus on other tasks while the vehicle autonomously ploughs, fertilizes or sows the field – if necessary even at night. Autonomous navigation is enabled, among other things, through a sensor suite, which equips the vehicle for environmental detection. This suite usually consists of cameras as well as LiDAR and radar sensors.
LiDAR at the centre of the sensor suite of autonomous vehicles
The laser-based LiDAR sensors have a clear advantage over their colleagues: dust, darkness and fog do not impair their performance. A camera, for example, is not able to provide information in darkness or fog – a LiDAR, on the other hand, can detect its surroundings even under these conditions. Especially on fields where dust can be stirred up quickly and visibility conditions can be problematic, reliable environment detection is important.
The precision is another advantage that LiDAR sensors have over other methods of environmental detection. Since laser technology is able to reproduce the environment digitally in 3D data, livestock, for example, can be reliably detected and classified. The information from the LiDAR sensor is so accurate that it is possible to differentiate between stock of different sizes, e.g. a cow and a sheep. In addition, the same mechanisms can be used here as in security applications: If the animals exceed the grazing limits, an alarm is triggered. Farmers know that their herds are safe, even at night.
Using agricultural land efficiently with precision agriculture
Another area of application for new technologies is precision agriculture. The aim of this concept is to reduce expenditure and significantly increase yields. In precision agriculture, the cultivation of land, such as sowing and fertilising, is optimally adapted to the conditions by means of precise recording and evaluation of parameters such as soil condition or yield.
But how are these parameters recorded? This is where sensors come into play, including LiDAR sensors. An example: LiDARs attached to tractors are able to precisely determine the height, volume and mass of a maize field and thus also the expected yield. Another application example is the collection of hay bales. Here the LiDAR detects the bales in front of the vehicle and the machine can automatically reach for them and throw them onto the trailer. Monitoring feeding areas is also a possible application: The sensor measures the fill level so that feed can be refilled at the right time.
New sensor technologies such as LiDAR can significantly support agriculture in increasing yields and using land more efficiently. The use of these technologies represents an important step in preparing the industry for the future.