Future farming: Cloud computing reaches agriculture

The term “swarm intelligence” is now known to many people, while “herd management” is not (yet). That is likely to change considerably in the future, as cloud computing and agricultural technology are expected to grow together.

Networking, apps and cloud computing are expected to enhance both the efficiency and the productivity of farms. Farmers who use their tablet while on the tractor will probably no longer be a rare sight in the near future: “Agriculture is becoming more digital”, the Association of German Engineers (VDI) reports. The development even has a name already: “Future Farming”. Unlike what the term suggests, some of the new technologies are already in use today.

The tractor is turning into the control centre

Industry 4.0 is to production what Future Farming is to agricultural technology. Dr. Eberhard Nacke, Head of Product Strategy for the agricultural machinery manufacturer Claas, explains what this means in practise: The digitisation of agricultural operations made it possible to network data and information and thus identify new functional interrelationships. This makes it possible, for example, to steer farm equipment on the field with an accuracy of 2 to 3 cm. “In addition, machines can automatically adapt their working speed to suit changing conditions.”

Dr. Daniel Herd, Head of Farm Management Support at Lely Germany, reports on “herd management in the cloud”: “Applications allow farmers to control a complete robotic and herd management system via smartphone and tablet.” The applications interact operationally as a complete system and provide input options for livestock as well as further options for machine control and robot monitoring.

Communication in accordance with uniform standards

Hubertus Paetow sees still more room for improvement in communications and data standardisation. Although the Vice-President of the German Agricultural Society (DLG) emphasises that the technologies can avoid duplicate handling, make routes easier to plan and improve the appropriate use of resources, he nevertheless insists on the need for interfaces that enable an exchange of data from a wide variety of sources and applications. He feels that there is still considerable need for action in this area.

Overall, however, cloud computing offers agriculture many advantages, according to Herd, not least in view of animal health and animal welfare. He feels that the opportunity lies in automatically preparing data volumes and providing them to farmers as a decision-making basis. This could even lead to an automation of entire workflows.

Country lore: Farmers are technology-savvy

But is such technical support even being asked for in the first place? The VDI wanted the complete picture and asked the Department of Agricultural Engineering. “In principle, respondents tend to be in favour of linking up the virtual and real world”, says the departmental chair Prof. Dr. Peter Pickel, summarising the results of the member survey. Most of them expect to run a more efficient and cost-effective operation. Only about one in ten, however, expects the social acceptability of agriculture to improve through the use of cloud computing.

Farmers also dared a look into the crystal ball in this context: Three-quarters of farmers see field robots being used in the future. Almost as many believe that technology will make it possible to individually supply individual plants with nutrients. (ds)