A new era in agribusiness
tec.news spoke with Prof. Dr Peter Pickel, Manager External Relations at JOHN DEERE GmbH & Co. KG, about future trends in agriculture
tec.news: How do you think agricultural technology will change in the future? Are there any particular trends that stand out?
Prof. Dr. P. Pickel: Two megatrends will play a special role for agricultural technology in the coming years - on the one hand "Agriculture 4.0", a reference to the term "Industry 4.0", and on the other hand electrification.
tec.news: How do you define Agriculture 4.0?
Prof. Dr. P. Pickel: While different stages of development are defined for Industry 4.0, this model can also be derived in parallel for the term "Agriculture 4.0": Phase 1 was the invention of agriculture 12,000 years ago, when people intentionally and specifically put plant seeds into the ground to grow crops and kept animals at the same time. Phase 2 introduced power machines in the 19th century, phase 3 describes the first steps of automation in the 1970s. Since the early 2000s, we have entered phase 4, in which the first satellite-based positioning systems were established.
With Agriculture 4.0, we at John Deere are pursuing our vision of "Make every seed count - Make every drop count - Make every grain count". So for us this means "Every seed counts - Every drop counts - Every grain counts": In arable farming, we want to regard each and every plant as an individual and give it what it needs in terms of nutrients, water and crop protection measures to achieve maximum yield with minimum input.
tec.news: How are you implementing your vision?
Prof. Dr. P. Pickel: We have made it our task to bring the different steps together in the form of a production control system. We see the integration and connection of the four production processes - soil cultivation, planting/sowing, crop care such as fertilisation and crop protection measures, and harvesting - as the key to Agriculture 4.0. With this in mind, we will consistently expand our current farm management system. This involves machine optimisation, such as networking the machine with service centres, optimising individual processes and, finally, agronomic optimisation. Our aim is to accumulate experience in the agricultural process and to share with farmers how to design their production process and subsequent crop rotations with a long-term perspective. These issues will continue to occupy us for the next 10 years.
tec.news: How far has the degree of autonomy advanced in this field?
Prof. Dr. P. Pickel: We have currently launched a tractor from our 8000 series that can already be operated fully autonomously. For example, we guide the machine along pre-planned paths and position it using satellite positioning systems and terrestrial correction signals. As required, however, only partial tasks can be automated, such as the transfer of crop from the combine harvester to a tractor trailer.
As soon as the tractor approaches, the combine takes complete control of the tractor and trailer and guides the machine so that an even and optimal filling can take place. The topic of autonomy, however, is currently mainly relevant in the USA; in Europe, the legal framework prohibits the use of autonomous machines in the context of agriculture.
tec.news: In addition to this, what role does the megatrend of electrification that you mentioned at the beginning play?
Prof. Dr. P. Pickel: As far as farms are concerned, the greatest potential for energy production and reduction of CO2 lies in electrification. But it is not only access to renewable energy that is determined and shaped by electrification. For us, the good controllability and the ability to regulate precision control systems plays an equally important role. Electrification offers us the opportunity to develop systems for the highest precision in plant treatment. HARTING is also making an important contribution to connectivity in this context: For our 8000 series, for example, we are sourcing the AEF connector including the cable harness from the technology group.
tec.news: Are battery-electric agricultural machines already in use?
Prof. Dr. P. Pickel: At John Deere, our aim is to equip agricultural machines with batteries that can also realise higher outputs and perform a whole day's work without needing to be recharged. Medium-sized and large tractors do not yet allow this today. In order to enable them to nevertheless carry out the intensive tillage tasks electrically, we have investigated the possibilities of cable-electric vehicles and presented the pre-development project called the "field swarm unit". Tractor-type machines are supplied with power via a cable from the cable guide unit. The drive of the highly compact constructed machine with 500KW peak power can realise a power density increase of up to a factor of 5.
tec.news: What is your conclusion on the current state and your outlook for the next ten years of the agricultural economy?
Prof. Dr. P. Pickel: Currently, for example, the “Sustainable Agriculture with Artificial Intelligence (NaLamKi)” project is on our agenda. Here, we are developing data platforms with other partners and institutes in order to network services that are based on AI methods. Moreover, we are concerned with the topic of the "agriculture network". Here, our goal is to provide farmers with 4G/5G infrastructure so that they can use Agriculture 4.0 technologies in the field. Finally, we are working on machine concepts to equip even large tractors (from 100 hp) with higher outputs entirely with electric batteries. These ideas, however, will not be feasible before 2040.
Prof. Dr Peter Pickel has been employed by the agricultural machinery manufacturer JOHN DEERE for more than 15 years where he leads a pre-development team that designs future agricultural technologies. Before moving into industry, Peter Pickel was active as a professor of agricultural engineering at Martin Luther University in Halle. tec.news spoke with him about the trends and challenges of digital and electrified agriculture.