If we are honest, when we think of "agriculture" we often think of a small farmhouse with a barn, a few chicken in the yard and a dozen cows in the shed still being milked by hand. However, in order to be able to feed the ever-growing world population, agriculture has been practically forced to transform itself into a highly efficient industry in recent decades. Digitalization has also contributed to this. Here, the industry has now caught up enormously. Because in addition to wheat, corn and soybeans, more and more farmers are harvesting something else: data. About the health of their piglets. About the milk yield of each individual cow. About the hoof health of horses. About the condition of the soil. And about the minimum amount of fertilizer needed for maximum crop quality. The nuclei for all this information are sensors.
More comfort for long harvest days
Of course, we at Continental are no livestock professionals. But our experts are very familiar with the sensors used in agricultural applications. Among other things, they can be used to make the analog air springs of undercarriages, cabs, and seats of agricultural machines "smart" and thus significantly increase comfort for the driver. One example of this is the air springs for the front axle of tractors, for which Continental is the sole supplier.
If these sensors then work together with other components, for example valves and other actuators, as well as the appropriate control software, they will be the first step toward Agriculture 4.0. A concrete example of this is the Electronic Air Spring Damping system (eASD), an electronically controlled suspension and damping system for vehicle cabs that automatically adapts to uneven ground conditions, thus increasing comfort in the future for all those who spend twelve hours or more at the wheel of a harvesting machine during the harvesting season.
Small but mighty: sensors are already all-rounders today
However, eASD in agriculture is still rather a thing of the future. HPTA sensors, on the other hand, can already help solve important efficiency and sustainability issues in the industry today. HPTA stands for "height," "pressure", "temperature" and "acceleration". Depending on the application, they can measure just one of these values, a combination of several, or even all parameters.
A concrete example of this? Hydraulic elements are often used in sowing and planting machines to distribute the individual seeds. However, this technology has several disadvantages: For one thing, there is always the possibility that the hydraulic oil could leak out – with negative consequences for plants, soil and the environment. Secondly, the farmer must do it himself and set the planting height to a predefined level on a five-step scale, which then applies to all the seeders' planting rows. And finally, this setting subsequently remains unchanged, regardless of changes in the soil conditions in the course of the field. As a result, the expensive seed is not always optimally applied at the right amount, at the optimal planting depth or with the right spacing.
However, because air springs do not require oil, they are already an increasingly sought-after alternative for hydraulic technology. And when they are equipped with HPTA sensors, up to 56 plant rows can be individually and highly precisely calibrated at the touch of a button following an initial ground scan. In addition, they can automatically adjust as they progress and compensate for different soil conditions. This means that seed can be disseminated just as deeply in loose topsoil as in firm soil.
This precision becomes even more important with field sprayers. if liquids unevenly concentrate in one place while missing elsewhere, it can jeopardize an entire harvest. Here, too, smart air springs can ensure that each individual plant gets exactly the right amount of water. In addition to the different soil conditions, our sensors detect changes in the vehicle weight, which continues to decrease over time as the liquid is discharged from the tank. Manually adjustable air springs have also been used for this purpose up to now, which could gain in precision by using HPTA sensors.
Agriculture 4.0 is no science fiction
In the last ten years, agricultural technology has developed greatly with the help of digitalization, and this is expected to continue. Today, aerial drones are already a frequently used means of land inspection, 360-degree camera systems attached to agricultural machinery, such as Continental's ProViu 360, give farmers a good overview of the surrounding area, and modern harvesting machines are monitored and kept operational with the help of predictive maintenance. Therefore, Integrated Sensor Technology will continue to drive development and further increase automation, safety, sustainability and efficiency on farms. Farmers will no longer perform many tasks themselves and by hand but will monitor the machines from their offices. After all, the sensors have the necessary feel.
Incidentally, horses have also recently begun to benefit from digitalization made in Hanover. In keeping with Continental's 150-year tradition – the first product was a hoof buffer made of rubber – we are now presenting a unique hoof shoe for the first time. This is pulled over the horse's hoof and an integrated sensor provides indications of irregularly distributed pressures on the sole. This allows blacksmiths to intervene at an early stage before health problems arise and, down the line, require time-consuming and expensive veterinary treatment. In addition, the data from the hoof shoe sensor facilitates diagnosis and thus the optimal direction of therapy. Maybe we will become livestock professionals after all.