farm of the future for precision agriculture robots research

The Farm of the Future

22 November 2023

Vision + Robotics researcher Bram Veldhuisen is involved in the Farm of the Future when it comes to technology. He talks about rows, strip cultivation, and robots that can’t look back. “Hoeing is simple for a human, challenging for a robot.”

Farmer’s questions leading in Farm of the Future

“You shouldn’t push technology through technicians. You should first listen to the user’s needs,” says Bram Veldhuisen. It was an important learning that he saw confirmed in recent years at the Farm of the Future. Once technicians fall in love with a technology they’ve invented, they live in their own pink bubble and easily forget reality. And with it, the question of whether users are waiting for that technology. “If they don’t have a problem, there’s no point in coming up with a new solution for them. We need demand-driven development. What does a farmer need to make his work easier? Technology should not be leading, but the farmer’s question.”

Experimentation and knowledge center for precision agriculture

Veldhuisen is a precision agriculture and robotics researcher. He grew up as a farmer’s son in the northern part of Flevoland, mere tens of kilometers north of where the Farm of the Future in Lelystad is located now. The idea behind that project was a question from the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV). They wanted to know what agriculture could look like in Flevoland in 2030, taking into account all the challenges that are coming. So that farmers can follow these developments and adapt to them. The NPPL, in which Veldhuisen is involved as a researcher at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), also showed that there is a demand for a place where manufacturers can test new machines they have developed before presenting them to the market. “They can do that with us. The Farm of the Future is a place where we can experiment and share knowledge.”

WUR now has several Farms of the Future in different regions of the Netherlands where researchers work on various projects on a practical scale. Each of these farms is located in a different region of the Netherlands so that specific solutions can be tested locally. The focus at the Farm of the Future in Lelystad is on biodiversity, fewer crop protection agents, and a healthier, more climate-resistant soil.

Soil compaction

“Soil compaction is a growing problem,” says Veldhuisen. This is due to agricultural machinery that keeps getting bigger and heavier. Especially during the harvest when the ground is often moist, you loosen it to extract your product. Then farmers drive heavy machinery over it, the most sensitive moment to create soil compaction. After harvesting, you can still mechanically loosen the topsoil, say 30-40 centimeters. But below that, it is more difficult, and a compacted layer is formed. You notice it naturally, he says. After a heavy rain, the water cannot penetrate. Plant roots also cannot penetrate that layer, preventing them from reaching groundwater in dry periods. “Due to climate change, both wet and dry periods are becoming more common. You want soil that can handle both well.”

Rows between cultivation beds

With fixed rows, you can counteract soil compaction, and they have been experimenting with this in Lelystad for thirteen years. From potato planter to manure spreader, from harvesting machine to combine: they all have an axis of 3 meters 15 on the Farm of the Future. “So they can drive exactly on the same track between the cultivation beds each time.” These rows are therefore compacted and hardened, but that’s okay. No machine ever drives over the cultivation beds, so the soil there is not compacted. And behold, last spring, thanks to the wet weather, those fixed rows worked out great right away. Veldhuisen: “Despite all the rain, we could always go to the fields, thanks to the rows. They were hard, and the ground in the bed had dried just enough to sow.” And all because they had widened the axes of the machines at the Farm of the Future with a small adjustment to existing technology. “It shows what you can achieve with a small adjustment to existing technology to achieve agronomic and ecological goals more efficiently.”

Make the most of existing technology in farming

On the Farm of the Future, farmers can see how to use existing and available technology to the maximum. Many have already equipped their tractors with GPS steering systems. This way, they can work their land with an accuracy of up to two centimeters without steering errors and thus prevent sowing or plowing the same ground maybe twice. Veldhuisen: “Farmers are already satisfied with automatic straight-line driving. But they can set so many other things with such a steering system.” He mentions automatic turning on headlands. In addition to the tractor, you can also control the agricultural implement with GPS, allowing you to work the land even more accurately. Handy if different crops are growing there. “When you do that automatically, it goes a bit more smoothly than when you have to adjust that machine manually again.” Farmers find it difficult and troublesome to set up technology sometimes. “But once they overcome that threshold, the feedback usually is, hey, this is actually really easy.”

He mentions the cultivation registration that farmers have to keep for the government and their customers. This can be recorded in the cloud with a cultivation registration app. “You can fill it in on your phone during your work. Then you don’t have to wonder afterwards about what you did last week.” But the tractor itself can also fill in that cultivation registration. The implement knows exactly what it is doing and passes this on to the tractor. The tractor then automatically sends this to that registration system. “A farmer only has to confirm those registrations instead of having to fill them in himself.” It is already possible with the technology on the market, but farmers don’t use it much yet. “A pity, because it can make their work easier.”

Spot spraying

A new technology is spot spraying. A camera-guided spray machine precisely registers where the weed plant is and only sprays the weed instead of the entire field. In many situations, a farmer can save more than 90 percent of the agent with this. Veldhuisen thinks that in a few years, every farmer will have such a machine with which he can apply crop protection agents very selectively. “Soon it will be able to see the difference between different plants and can selectively control weeds.” In new research, the same recognition technique is now also used to control a laser. Such a laser quickly and accurately burns away the weed plants. In this way, no agent is needed at all.

Smart machines are needed in agriculture

A handy helper at the Farm of the Future is the Robotti from the Danish company Agrointelli. A lightweight implement carrier (it has a power of 50 to 60 hp) that can perform various agricultural tasks on GPS navigation. From crop monitoring with camera techniques to cultivation operations such as seedbed preparation, hoeing, fertilizing, and crop protection. However, the Robotti has a drawback. It cannot yet check whether it is doing its task correctly. A robot blindly performs what you have programmed. Veldhuisen: “All robots run on GPS and only look ahead to see if there are no big obstacles in front of them. You just have to assume that they are doing their job well.” And no, unfortunately, you can’t rely on that. “Hoeing is simple. A robot should be able to do that, we thought. That’s what we’ll let it do first. But then we found out, hoeing is quite difficult for a robot.” The reason: a human can switch faster and smarter. A farmer takes an employee on his tractor with a hoe behind it. The farmer demonstrates one round, and then the other person usually knows how such a hoeing machine works. If, after a few rounds alone, he thinks, wait a minute, this is not okay, then he stops and calls the farmer to help. “Asking for help. Simple for a human, difficult for a robot.”

Supervisory systems for farming robots

That’s why the researchers are working on developing supervisory systems, with which every robot can soon check the quality of its task itself. Yes, you can program that per implement. Quite a hassle, for sure. For a seed drill, quality means something different than for a hoe or a potato harvester. Veldhuisen: “We have to develop supervisory systems for all operations of a machine. Every robot is good at dumb work. We have to teach it to look back and think. ‘What is the goal of what I have to do, and am I doing that well?’ They must soon see for themselves how well they hoe and stop if they conclude that they are not performing their work correctly.”

Read more about Farm of the Future here.

Bram Veldhuisen Vision Robotics

A (Bram) Veldhuisen MSc

Researcher Precision Agriculture and Robotics

Contact A (Bram) Veldhuisen MSc