Agriculture The Hi-Tech way to farm

A growing world population, the impact of climate change and dwindling resources are among the major challenges now facing the agricultural industry. Along with the development of new crop types, state-of-the-art agricultural machinery offers the best hope for the future.

The big tractor stops on the edge of the plowed field while the farmer types final instructions into the onboard computer. It’s a perfect day for planting the spring wheat – as the farm’s operating system had already calculated, based on meteorological data, soil samples and grain characteristics. At last, with a couple of clicks, the farmer enters the speed setting and launches the sowing program. For the next few hours, he’ll leave most of the work to the tractor’s onboard systems. Using laser scanners and GPS, the tractor will find its way around the field almost unassisted. The farmer can concentrate entirely on the sowing process, without having to worry about clutch or gearshifts.

What once sounded futuristic is rapidly becoming routine. “Modern farmers sit in the cockpits of their farm machines and monitor the progress of farming operations from their onboard computers; they hardly even have to steer,” explains Professor Stefan Böttinger from the Institute of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Hohenheim. Liberated from monotonous work in shifts lasting 12-14 hours, farmers can now concentrate on optimizing the workflow. Just like modern cars, the onboard computers in farmers’ tractors display important information on speed, fuel consumption and the status of the sowing operation. Onboard computers can also control agricultural implements attached to the tractor, such as plows or planters. Previously, each piece of machinery had its own set of controls.

Modern agricultural machines take the strain out of field work.

Not so long ago, farmers would have to drive over the meadow, stop each time the baler finished pressing or rolling a bale, and unload it by hand before driving on again. Modern balers, on the other hand, can calculate the speed of both tractor and baler, bring them both to a halt at the right moment and dump the bales on their own – the whole process is automated. “The growing use of hi-tech farm machinery is enabling farmers to work more efficiently and more economically,” says Hermann Beck, head of ZF’s Off-Highway Systems business unit.

Smart all-in-one system

Robots will take care of farming in the future. The Prospero Robot Farmer designed by Dorhout R&D LLC, is capable of high-precision sowing.

One important prerequisite for agricultural innovation is the seamless interconnection of the individual applications to form a single smart, streamlined, all-in-one system. Modern agricultural machines have two different interfaces for enabling the individual subsystems to talk to each other. The first interface, known as the CAN bus system, is primarily used to control internal systems such as engine and transmission.

By contrast, the second system (ISOBUS) works closely with farmers, enabling them to control, for example, plowing or sowing implements directly from their onboard computers. But smart communication between systems extends far beyond the farm vehicle itself. Currently, farmers have high hopes for development work in progress on so-called “slave systems”, whereby the main farm machine acts as the lead vehicle, interacting with a flock of smaller, (semi-)autonomous, unmanned vehicles.

Another major theme preoccupying agricultural visionaries is “precision farming”. Typically, this vision of the future involves agricultural machines that not only know precisely where they are in the field, but also how much seed and fertilizer they need to distribute in each part of the field. Gauging exactly how much fertilizer to apply has always been one of farming’s most problematic challenges. Fertilizer in the soil is mobile: it’s difficult to tell whether crops are receiving enough nitrates, or whether the nitrogen is making its way straight into the groundwater. Now researchers at the University of Bremen have come up with a possible solution. The soil in the field is analyzed using a small chemical laboratory.

ZF technology in agriculture

ZF engineers built the company’s first tractor transmission back in 1937; today, almost all of the major manufacturers of agricultural machinery rely on ZF’s continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). Over the decades, these systems have made huge strides in terms of sophistication and performance. Nowadays, farm machines producing up to 650 horsepower run smoothly on ZF’s heavy-duty CVTs. Just like driver-assist systems, modern powertrain technologies take the strain out of farmers’ daily work – and because they maintain a perfect balance between engine speed and gearing, they also reduce fuel consumption. In times of scarce resources and high oil prices, that’s an important cost consideration for farmers.

Cutting costs, reducing workloads and protecting the environment are by no means the only reasons why the use of hi-tech systems in farms is exploding. “Already, farmers in Germany and France are harvesting four or five times as much wheat from their fields as farmers in the U.S. or Russia,” says Böttinger. “Using modern systems, we’re further increasing productivity and crop yields,” he adds. This high efficiency is immensely important in international competition – not least because farmers in Russia and the U.S. have on average three to four times as much acreage available to them.

Find more Informations about ZF Technology for Agricultural Vehicles here.

Pictures: Getty Images (header), Corbis, Getty Images, laif (gallery), Corbis, Dorhout R&D LLC

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