First, I want to apologize to my Farmer Iron followers. In your November issue I noted I would be blogging from the event, and frankly that didn’t happen. No excuses, I made a promise I didn’t keep so I want to make it up to you with a few observations.
Agritechnica, the largest farm show in Europe, and often called the largest in the world, offers visitors a significant opportunity to see tools and tech that you may never see in this country. Part of that is due to the fact that agriculture is indeed different in Europe (and Asia for that matter) and also because of the vast number of companies at work in the region versus the United States.
As my colleague Mark Moore notes (he was my photographer and helper on this trip and has lived in Germany for more than four years) Germany is about the size of Wisconsin but has 85 million people. Given those numbers and the pure number of farms, there are more manufacturers. And that’s just one European country.
Here are some things we saw that offer potential for the future:
Robotics. This is a kind of Holy Grail for developers as they seek ways to automate tasks due in part to the lack of labor available, but also because sometimes automated approaches can just be more efficient. There was the Greenbot (seen on this page) which is a fully automated 100-hp tractor that can till, plant, run a hay rake, and more. As the CEO of the company told us, he’s finding out farmers will tell him how they’ll use the machine.
We also ran across a startup division of the automotive parts giant Bosch, where researchers are free to try new things, including robots that punch out weeds, and also robots that monitor individual plants (we’re not kidding). This robot can roll through a field imaging every plant and offering information about plant development. You can even pull up a 3D image of an individual plant to look at it from all angles right from your desktop. This is a research vehicle for now, and I’m not sure the full use of it, but in high-value crops there may be a purpose.
Basically, automation is moving toward agriculture and what it looks like remains to be seen.
UAVs. We saw our fair share of unmanned aerial vehicles at the show, the delta-wing planes, the multi-rotor hoverers, even a big-winged drone with rotating props that allowed it to take off vertically then fly a pattern like a plane. In Europe, they can use UAVs for business purposes in Europe, without special permission, provided their vehicle is less that 5 kilograms (about 10 pounds) with a permit. Permits can run one or three years. If you want to run a larger vehicle – say 25 kg (about 55 pounds) you need a permit for every flight. UAVs can only operate at heights up to 100 meters (300 feet) and the operator must maintain line of sight.
One interesting vehicle we saw had a dispenser for small balls that could be filled with the eggs of beneficial insects. This drone would then fly a patter and eject the balls in a specific pattern to get the insects into a field. A key use: beneficial insects for control of European corn borer – because of course, European growers can’t use biotech methods for control of the costly pest.
Electric tools. When I first heard about electric power from tractors rather than PTO or hydraulic power, I was at first confused. I figured PTO and hydraulic power were plenty efficient. Turns out that’s not true and having a 700 kilowatt generator on your tractor might be a good idea. Electric-actuated implements and tools can be better controlled by computer, offer unique features beyond traditional uses and solve a growing concern about hydraulic fluid spills.
We saw a couple of applications. Fendt, owned by Agco, has been working with an X tractor that offers a big generator to run electric implements. This year at Agritechnica, the company showed off a rotary hay rake where every head was an electric motor that could be independently controlled. It is a prototype, but with other sensors it would be possible to have the rake go through the field and change speed based on the amount of crop it moved.
John Deere had a front-mount power unit that turned a 200 hp tractor into an equivalent 300 hp tractor because the extra power unit could be used in new ways. They took the electric power and mated it to a third wheel in a big loader wagon (popular for hay handling in Europe) that could be actuated as needed to move heavier loads. An interesting way to deploy electric power.
Those are just a few items we saw. I’ll share more in an upcoming blog. And thanks for your patience.