Climate change, population growth, shrinking farmland: Field robots present solutions for challenges in agriculture

11. Januar 2023 | Fraunhofer IIS is working at the cutting edge of agriculture, producing sensor systems, software, and actuator technology to help field robots conserve resources and promote healthy growth.

The field of agriculture is currently facing major challenges—persistent droughts, a shrinkage in arable land, novel diseases and pests, and a continuously growing population—all of which urgently require more intelligent solutions. Field robots represent one such solution. These robots are capable of performing high-precision work, such as identifying and removing diseased plants or weeds, harvesting crops, or carrying out targeted irrigation and fertilization, among other activities. Sensors, software, and actuator technology, combined with artificial intelligence, offer one approach to handling this diverse set of tasks. Oliver Scholz, Deputy Head of the Contactless Test and Measuring Systems Department, spends his time at the Fraunhofer Development Center for X-ray Technology EZRT developing systems that can be flexibly adjusted to varying specifications. The product is a modular system that offers custom solutions for any application.

Advantages of field robots

One such custom system is already integrated in the BlueBob robot, which was developed by Fraunhofer IIS in collaboration with seed supplier Strube D&S GmbH. BlueBob specializes in weed control for sugar beets. With the help of multispectral cameras, the robot records all living plants in the field. From there, the image data is analyzed in real time using artificial intelligence, and plants are categorized as either sugar beets or weeds. The weeds are then removed using both static and active hoeing tools. The robot is capable of processing an area of between 0.5 and 1 hectares per hour, working completely autonomously and with a high level of reliability. This method is clearly superior to conventional techniques. As Oliver Scholz emphasizes: "The advantage lies in the fact that the weeds immediately return the nutrients to the soil because they are left on the field to decompose. If the weeds were treated using pesticides, as is normally the case, the nutrients that make up the plant would be lost instead." This also eliminates the need to increase fertilizer use in response to weed management techniques that leach nutrients from the soil. Throughout the process, farmers can check their results on a tablet, and unlike human workers, the robot is capable of working the fields around the clock, interrupted only by brief stops at the charging station. In addition to weed management, the robot can also be used for other applications, such as precision reading and precision/spot spraying. This involves using sensor technology to identify plants requiring special care and precisely applying pesticides or additional irrigation as needed.

It is important to realize that agriculture operates on a scale of its own: A mere one-percent increase in yield for a quantity of 4.3 million metric tons (the amount of sugar produced in Germany in 2020/21) translates to an increase of 43,000 metric tons. Looking even further into the future, it is possible to envision a scenario in which field robots perform most of the work out on the field—and the natural world would benefit greatly as a result. Oliver Scholz speaks of robots that could be charged using solar power and outfitted with the necessary water and materials in large farm buildings. From there, they would drive out onto the field, where they would take care of every last plant individually: "I can imagine a large robot driving around, weeding and conducting analyses. If it detects any problems, it informs a smaller robot that goes out to check the problem area on its own. This robot could treat sick plants using medication or, in extreme cases, remove them before they infect other plants." Instead of treating hectares upon hectares of plants with chemicals, problems would be handled with targeted solutions. This approach protects groundwater and improves produce quality without triggering resistance in pests or diseases.

The analogy to factory farming is obvious: "You can see it in livestock management, too. When you dose all of the animals with antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick, you have severe consequences down the line with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If you treat sick animals individually, you don't have that problem." Additionally, robots can simply drive around any obstacles they encounter on the field, a process that can be extremely time-consuming for tractors. This removes the incentive to clear gigantic, rectangular fields for the production of monocultures. Instead, small stands of trees and shrubs can be left on the fields, where they help to counteract soil erosion.

Facing the future together with the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Science

Researchers are currently making great strides in turning this vision into a reality—for example, by collaborating with the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Science, a partner with which Fraunhofer IIS is currently pursuing joint research in the field of biogenic value creation. At the university, the research partners are constructing massive testing centers containing so-called controlled environments in which it is possible to adjust the temperature, day length, and CO2 content of the atmosphere to study the optimum conditions for plant growth and production of substances (such as vitamins) and utilize resources at maximum efficiency. Field robots will be used in these centers as well. Students will benefit from the chance to apply the theories they learn in practice while Fraunhofer IIS will be able to take advantage of the cutting-edge research facilities and innovative input from the university. Applying these approaches and ideas to industrial practice is a central objective. After all, there is no time to lose. Oliver Scholz is keen to get on with the job: "There’s just so very much to do."

Considering the financial losses currently facing the agricultural sector, one thing is clear: Farmers are not the only ones who have to adjust their practices to changing climatic conditions and population levels; the devices and systems they use in their work need to be flexible, too. With its novel approach, Fraunhofer IIS is addressing that issue head-on, emphasizes Oliver Scholz: "Our goal is to create a shelf full of components and tools for smart farming. When someone comes to us with a problem, all we have to do is grab some tools from the shelf and build them an individualized solution."

Article by Lucas Westermann, Fraunhofer IIS Magazine

Further information


Development Center for X-ray Technology / 25.10.2021

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The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS sees itself as one of the drivers of innovation within the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s strategic research areas.


Development Center for X-ray Technology / 6.11.2018

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Development Center for X-ray Technology / 4.9.2020

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Development Center X-ray Technology EZRT


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