The core idea of precision agriculture is simple: The more farmers know about soil conditions, the weather, and plants and animals, the better they can adapt their decisions to the circumstances. With this knowledge and suitable technical equipment, it is possible to increase yields and simultaneously save resources. For example, if fertilizer is distributed following the needs of the plants and the precise soil conditions, farmers do not have to use a tractor as often, which saves carbon emissions. Therefore, researchers need to collect a large amount of reliable data that can then be analyzed and interpreted. This is one of the main challenges facing this scientific field.
Heinz Bernhardt, Professor for Agricultural Systems Engineering at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), and his team have established connected measuring systems in order to gain large amounts of reliable data. "Sensory systems in agriculture have to be very robust if, for example, they are attached to farming machinery. They have to be able to precisely carry out measurements independent of the temperature, pH level changes, or mechanical impacts," he explains. He and his team develop these kinds of "hardware" components for data collection in fields and animal stalls.
One of Bernhardt’s projects focuses on silage making. "Today, farmers prepare their forage for the silage and after two months first come to know if the fermentation has worked or if mold has destroyed it—this wastes time and resources," he says. Preventing the loss of plants, materials, and animals is one of the main goals of smart farming for both economic and ecological reasons because arable farming and animal husbandry produce a lot of carbon emissions. The scientists therefore established a complex sensor monitoring system for measuring oxygen, carbon dioxide, and temperature in and on the top of the silage. This enables them to accurately record and measure the conditions in the silo during the fermentation process without damaging the cover and raise alarm if conditions have changed.
The team also developed a system to record the health condition of calves through measuring such things as their temperature, mobility, and drinking behavior. With this technique, they were able to predict very early on which calves might become ill or exhibit abnormal behavior. As a result, farmers can use the data to more accurately administer medication or isolate the animals. "Our results show that we could measure changing conditions, which could be reacted to with greater accuracy and that is what precision agriculture is all about," says Bernhardt.
Researchers in Bernhardt’s team network with many other scientists working at TUM, including those in the disciplines of informatics, architecture, and electrical and computer engineering, as well as with those in other agricultural science-oriented chairs and institutions. They are all connected in the World Agricultural Systems Center Hans Eisenmann-Forum for Agricultural Sciences (HEF) which supports cooperation with other agronomic institutions at the TUM Campus Weihenstephan, where it is located, and beyond. "Smart agricultural research is very interdisciplinary and the results can be used worldwide. Most of the materials we use like chips and sensors were developed in other fields and can be applied to other purposes in the future," Bernhardt explains.
To create a synergy between the knowledge of different research fields, doctoral candidates work together in Bernhardt’s research group. They come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, including agricultural sciences, horticulture, and engineering. While writing their theses, doctoral candidates are mentored by the Graduate Center Weihenstephan (GZW) which also co-organizes annual events about agricultural topics like the HEFagrar PhD symposium.
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The labs address the following technology fields: Aerospace, ChemSPACE, Built Environment, Robotics/AI, Food-Agro-Biotech, Software/AI, Healthcare, Quantum and Additive Manufacturing. Additional TUM Venture Labs are currently being planned in the fields of Smart Mobility and Sustainability/Bioeconomy/Energy.
Agricultural research at TUM can also lead to a career in innovation as an entrepreneur. If doctoral candidates in Bernhardt’s research team produce promising results or ideas during their thesis, they are always encouraged to consider founding a start-up. With TUM Venture Lab Food-Agro-Biotech, the university supports young founders in the agricultural field in all aspects of their entrepreneurial journey across numerous technology-based domains.
The three young founders of the start-up "RAISE Agriculture," Magnus Baumann, James Specker, and Abir Bhattacharyya, are one successful example that has evolved out of this entrepreneurial innovation hub. The team from Germany, Canada, and India found each other after their studies with the help of the entrepreneurial network of TUM and were united by the basic idea of changing farming practices for the good. They were financially supported by the EXIST Start-up Grant and are developing a camera sensor-system for drones, with a connected database, which detects unhealthy plants in the field or invasive weeds with the help of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence so that they can be selectively treated.
"Our innovation supports farmers in spreading fewer herbicides and pesticides on their fields. The farmers feed people, so we help farmers," says James Specker. The group is collaborating with Kang Yu, Professor for Precision Agriculture, and other research groups in the agricultural and life sciences at TUM, as well as farmers inside and outside the laboratory network. After image data collection using damaged plants from the greenhouse this season, the team wants to start selling their innovation next year. "The system works; we are ready to introduce it to the market," says Magnus Baumann.