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Food and Farming
When Swarm Robots Reap the Harvest
Lots of data lies fallow—but a professor aims to tap the bounty: Sonoko Dorothea Bellingrath-Kimura explains how digitalization can harmonize ecology and economy in the field.
Prof. Bellingrath-Kimura, when one thinks of digitalization in agriculture, autonomous combines and drones that send data to the farmer’s app
come to mind. Is that the type of solution you’re working on?
Not quite. One can certainly equip fields and farms with drones, sensors and robots, but there is much more information that can be used. In our research project, which has commenced in two test regions in the German states of Brandenburg and Bavaria, the primary focus is establishing the flow of information and to both collect new data and link the data that already exists.
What type of data is that?
That includes publicly collected data from the air and space, from satellites, weather services and soil mapping, as well as the data collected by the farms themselves. So far, this data has not been placed in a context and evaluated jointly. We want to change that.
What do you expect in terms of benefits?
The aim is for farmers to be able to do a better job of protecting biodiversity and the environ- ment while having a better understanding of when to plant which crops.
Don’t farmers already know that from their experience and daily work?
In one sense, yes. On the other hand, what makes sense environmentally has too seldom had an economic value as well. And vice versa. Here’s
an example: the EU subsidizes planning buffer strips. The position of the strip—for instance on the edges of rivers, marshes, or dry areas—is
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critical for greater biodiversity—but these criteria are not taken into account as much as they should be. As a result, many buffer strips do not help the environment. Digitalization can bring economic and environmental considerations into harmony with one another.
How does that work?
Data and machines can identify environmen- tally valuable areas and recommend to farmers how they can farm them optimally. When the farmer drives over one of the areas in the tractor, the plow automatically changes its setting; it fertilizes or sows seeds depending on what’s required. Until now, farmers have had to do that themselves, which is time-consuming when
the areas are divided into small plots. This also eliminates cumbersome paperwork for the farmer because data is sent automatically to the authorities and there is no need to fill out forms. Inspectors also have less work, as they can evaluate the situation remotely.
So this makes it possible to invest resources in effective measures in a targeted manner.
That’s right. We get more transparency concern- ing what works and what doesn’t, with regard to economic as well as environmental factors. There
Sonoko Dorothea Bellingrath-Kimura
is a professor of land use systems at Humboldt University in Berlin and director of the Digital Knowledge and Information Processing in Agriculture project
at the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research.
is no longer any need to invest in the plot, and the costs for individual consumers and society in general go down.
Is the technology for this already in place?
Much of it is currently being studied and devel- oped, by start-ups as well as bigger companies. They see the opportunities in digitalization. I think that their solutions will be put into practice in the next five to ten years. In my view, it is not large, autonomous tractors that make the most sense, but smaller swarm robots whose number can be scaled to the size of the operation.
The digitalization of agriculture is often de- scribed as the silver bullet in making it possible to feed ten billion people in the year 2050. Are there risks as well?
Digitalization offers great possibilities, but also serious risks. We have to create a safe infrastruc- ture to ensure that data is not lost and a total breakdown caused in the event that end devices fail, which could lead to the crop rotting in the fields. Or: Who will milk the cows if there are fewer staff due to automation and the machines go down? We also have to resolve the issue of data security. Who owns personal information if a robot gathers sensitive data about the operation? That has not yet been clarified.
On the other hand, digitalization can also im- prove the farming profession, isn’t that right? Yes. In our vision of the year 2050, it’s a smart profession. The farmer has to know not only plants, soils and animals, but also information technologies. It will be a demanding job, but we hope that young people will find it appealing.

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