Dutch smart farmer Jacob van den Borne flying drone on arable field

A drone airport for smart farming

22 May 2024

Jacob van den Borne is one of the most innovative farmers in the Netherlands. He’s worked with drones for years, but was never allowed to really experiment with swarming and heavier models. So he came up with a clever trick, adding a new dimension to his international campus where farmers, businesses and policymakers come to learn all about precision agriculture.

It drives him crazy. Jacob van den Borne has worked extensively with drones since 2010, using them to closely monitor his potato fields from above. The drones alert him to any insect infestations, and tell him if his plants need more water, or are actually too wet. But that’s all he’s allowed to do with drones, he says. No autonomous flying, no spraying, no dropping, and certainly no swarming with a big fleet of drones. Airspace belongs to the government, and it’s subject to specific rules, he’s been told. “You can only fly autonomously in an enclosed airspace, like a shed or warehouse,” says Van den Borne. “That makes it a bit awkward when you work at a training and experimentation institute and you want to try new things outside for precision agriculture.”

But three years ago, Van den Borne read something that caught his eye. An airport is also considered to be an enclosed airspace, with its own Controlled Traffic Region (CTR). So if you have one of those, you’re immune from government interference. He immediately decided to apply for a licence for his own airport, and got one: 70 hectares, surrounding the farm. It’s called Reusel Airport, and is now listed on all flight maps. He’s allowed to fly drones there weighing up to 150kg, and to go up to a height of 300 metres. The airport’s operations manager is a former pilot, and every day he files a report on whether any flights are due to take place at Reusel Airport, the location of those flights, and their altitude. “He passes that on to Eindhoven Airport, the air force and all other authorities.”

Smart farming as a sidekick to Mother Nature

It’s fair to say that Reusel Airport is special. Most drone ports are located at existing or former airports. “That’s no use to me,” says Van den Borne. “Because what can I measure there? The grass height around the runway?” At his own airport, he gets to test whatever he wants. And that goes for anyone who wants to experiment with a drone, whether they want to carry out trials or test programmes, swarm or calibrate their equipment. He’s not worried that drone enthusiasts from all over the Netherlands will be paying a visit. “We control the airspace and decide who flies what and where.”

The airport is a great addition to the VDBorne Campus that is currently under construction and expected to be ready by 2025. “I think we invest too little in knowledge development and new technology in our country,” says Van den Borne. “The same applies to study programmes that teach you how to use those technologies.” The technology is there, he says, but it’s not actually being used to improve the way we farm. Hence the namesake campus, with Mother Nature herself in charge, and precision agriculture acting as her sidekick.

Hub for farmers, businesses, and policymakers to learn about smart farming

He shows the drawings. When it opens, around 100 people will be there every day, attending classes. It’s a campus focused on practical skills. “It’s a hub for farmers, businesses and policymakers where they can learn all about smart farming,” says Van den Borne. This will be done through events, meet-ups, training sessions, lectures and other forms of knowledge development. He hopes to do this with WUR and Vision+Robotics, having already worked in partnership with the institution for some years. He mentions the WUR experimental farm in Vredepeel, where work is being done on agricultural innovations related to loess and in particular to sand. “Wageningen is very good at research. I’m more the place where people can experience for themselves everything related to agriculture, innovation and technology.” This ranges from the latest drones to agricultural machinery. “People like to see what knowledge and technology you need to grow potatoes. Many think you just put something in the ground, it’s guaranteed to grow and there’s your bowl of chips.”

“Let me show you what we can do,” says Van den Borne, standing up. He opens a cabinet containing various things, including a huge drone. “I can measure biomass, chlorophyll and temperature with this. With those three things, I can feed data into crop, growth and other kinds of models to predict what a plant will or will not do. I measure anything that can be measured.”

He got the idea for the campus from a little further afield: Eindhoven Brainport, the High Tech Campus Eindhoven. “This will be the agrocampus,” say Van den Borne. Nearby in Eersel, there’s the Venco Campus run by Vencomatic, the biggest poultry shed construction company. It’s an egg-shaped building. In Bladel, MS Schippers – a company that specialises in materials and services for intensive livestock farming – is also working on its own campus. They’re all located within 20km of each other. “That gives you an indication of what’s happening here in the immediate area in terms of agriculture.”

Exploiting the full potential of precision agriculture

“Jacob van den Borne is an important experimental farm, both for WUR and the world as a whole. The way that Van den Borne collects, integrates, ties together and visualises data in dashboards seems obvious, but it is very complex. Many researchers prefer to tackle just one problem, but by doing that they fail to exploit the potential of precision agriculture. Wageningen, too, is moving towards integrated management systems with excellent data infrastructure. Van den Borne is an exceptional player in the industry, but if other farmers think they have to wait until Jacob has everything figured out, I’m afraid they’ve got the wrong end of the stick. It is a matter of starting right now, and learning, improving and automating every day. In my opinion, that’s the essence of future, smart farming,” says Erik Pekkeriet, Vision+Robotics programme manager.

Van den Borne has long been known as Europe’s most digital farmer. He actually had a terrible internet connection for many years. Uploading a folder of aerial photos took three days. Or he would have to go somewhere that did have a good internet connection. That’s because his farm is in the countryside, eight kilometres south of Reusel, close to the Belgian border. So then what do you do? You start your own fibre-optic company. Ten years ago, the KempenGlas cooperative launched, digging a 400km path through the countryside to establish 2700 connections. And yes, Van den Borne is already onto his next plan. His own wind farm. So that he can work in a climate-neutral way with all the other businesses in the area. To be continued.

Erik Pekkeriet Vision Robotics

ing. EJ (Erik) Pekkeriet

Programme Manager Vision+Robotics

Contact ing. EJ (Erik) Pekkeriet