Sustainable agriculture is digital 

March 30, 2021 | Images: Agroscope / fenaco / Adobe Stock / Huawai

Digitization in agriculture is one of the topics of focus within the Sunrise and Huawei Joint Innovation Center. On the basis of 5G, modern technologies are ensuring that farming is becoming more «smart» and therefore more sustainable and efficient. An array of pilot projects are demonstrating the benefits farmers can expect when data, drones, GPS and similar technologies interact with cattle and plants.

Diversity is the lifeblood of Swiss agriculture. From the Rhine Valley to Upper Valais, approximately 50,000 agribusinesses are keeping livestock, producing food and maintaining our cultivated land across mountains and valleys. Agriculture is associated with a down-to-earth attitude and being close to nature. But just like our everyday lives and working lives as a whole, Swiss agriculture has become inexorably digitized.

«Do not worry about the harvest, but about the right cultivation of your fields.»
- Confucius (551–479 BC)

This process has been driven, on the one hand, by concerns about natural resources, increasing demands regarding food safety, animal welfare and productivity, and the desire to improve working conditions for farmers. On the other hand, a large number of smart technologies are now available whose synergy is, step-by-step, making the vision of «Smart Farming» a reality.

The «Internet of Things» in support of agriculture 

The Internet of Things generally revolves around digital interconnectivity and the Internet’s applications within the real world. The knowledge we’ve gained from our fitness trackers and navigation systems in our cars is used in Smart Farming and applied to tractors and combine harvesters, farms and stables, and plants and animals. The connected «things» exchange data, which in turn are interlinked and evaluated. Conclusions can be drawn from the data that enable smarter economic management.

Technologies – modern «seeds»

Powerful telecommunications connections are the foundation of digital interconnectivity. With its extensive fields, remote farmsteads and animals on alpine pastures, digital interconnectivity would be particularly inconceivable within the agricultural sector without mobile communications. This includes the cloud, big data and artificial intelligence, high-resolution image recognition, sensors and robotics as well as drones, satellite technology and GPS. With the introduction of the fifth generation of mobile communications, a veritable paradigm shift is just around the corner. This shift will open up completely new application scenarios that have never been possible before.

5G is ushering in a paradigm shift

5G delivers wireless connectivity at a high bandwidth, low latency and with an enormous amount of parallel connections. This means that all devices required for the Internet of Things, such as sensors, tracking systems, drones, computers and smartphones, can benefit from high-performance mobile communications at the same time. And that, in turn, means that large quantities of data can be transmitted at breakneck speed with almost no delay. This makes real-time applications possible, such as the Innosuisse-funded innovation project for weed control regarding the so-called bitter dock. Compared to 4G transmission, 5G only needs a third of the energy to transmit the same amount of data. 5G networks are therefore an important component when it comes to ensuring sustainable production in agriculture and achieving the goal of a climate-neutral Switzerland by 2030.

A partner ecosystem for innovation in agriculture

Sunrise and Huawei have joined forces with agricultural stakeholders to promote the use of 5G and other smart technologies in Swiss agriculture. In a growing ecosystem that includes industry representatives such as Fenaco, research institutions such as the OST (Eastern Switzerland University of Applied Sciences), the Agroscope Swiss center of excellence and innovative startups, solutions are being worked on that are looking at how these technologies can create benefits in Swiss agriculture. Already realized applications, pilot projects and visions for the future are being showcased at the Sunrise and Huawei Joint Innovation Center, which speaks to a close technology and innovation partnership between the two companies.

The vision of Smart Farming – already a reality

Pilot project 1

Data-based weed control for clean groundwater | Until now, weeds in fields have been removed either painstakingly by hand or by using herbicides. A project to combat bitter dock is demonstrating completely new ways in which the weed control process can be digitized and thus made more environmentally friendly, faster and cheaper thanks to 5G: The pasture is photographed in high resolution using drones The images are sent to the cloud in real time, where the dock is identified and localized using image recognition software. Using machine learning based on thousands of images, the program recognizes dock in different stages of growth. A field robot receives the coordinates of the dock that the program has identified and can remove them very precisely via a method known as «Spot Spraying». The vision for the future is an autonomous, GPS-controlled robotic system that will regulate dock using hot water instead of herbicides. Pesticide consumption can be reduced immensely; the pastures will become more productive, the groundwater will be cleaner and the farmer will save time and money.

Pilot project 2 – «Connected Cow» for improved animal welfare

5G-based technologies can help farmers to optimize their cows’ milk production, track their eating habits or monitor the calving process. Connected mobile sensors on the ears, in the collars or on the legs of the cows record biometric information such as walking behavior, feed intake or time lying down. Changes in these parameters allow conclusions to be drawn regarding animal welfare, e.g., when a cow is in heat and it is therefore the most favorable time for insemination. Thanks to high-resolution, real-time data transmission, a farmer can monitor the calving process without having to conduct unnecessary physical checks in person at the barn. The livestock owner can call up information on how their animals are doing at any time via their smartphone. The «Connected Cow» solution has real potential to make animal husbandry more efficient and more species-appropriate.

Pilot project 3 – «Precision Farming» for precise fertilization

One area of Smart Farming is so-called Precision Farming. Precision Farming allows goals that would at first glance appear to be at odds with one another to be brought together: The fertilization required for optimal yields in agriculture has an impact on the environment. An impact that needs to be reduced. As part of this project, drones and satellites gauge the status of plants in the fields, while sensors measure the condition of the soil as well as the soil water’s nitrate content. The data are collected in the cloud and each piece of data is linked to one another. A fertilization map can be programed from the results, which enables the fertilizer to be distributed exclusively on the individual areas where fertilization is necessary, depending on the needs of the plants and the productivity of the soil. This allows the amount of fertilizer to be reduced without sacrificing yield, which results in cost savings for the farmer. The result: Greater nitrogen efficiency and a lower risk of nitrogen loss to the environment.

Pilot project 4 – Autonomous agricultural vehicles

Organic farming still requires a lot of manual labor. The vision of the future is for autonomous, collaborative robotic systems to be carrying out tasks such as weed control in pastures and fields, landscape maintenance and sowing and harvesting work. Good connectivity and low latency are required to control and monitor these autonomous vehicles. And these are exactly what 5G provides. Thanks to 5G, it will also be possible for aerial photographs from drones or satellites to be transmitted to the cloud in real time. There, the plants are identified and their condition is analyzed. Thanks to self-learning algorithms (artificial intelligence) and big data analysis, identification and analysis are becoming more and more precise, with cameras being able to differentiate, for example, between lettuce plants and weeds and between healthy lettuces and lettuces affected by disease. The corresponding order to administer any required treatment is also transmitted to the agricultural machine in real time via mobile communications. The agricultural machine is guided to the geolocalized plant via GPS and can treat it to a large extent on a plant-specific basis.

Summary: Benefits for us all

When it comes to potential application scenarios, there are no limits except for the ones we place on our own imagination. Smart irrigation systems that measure soil moisture or water quality and calculate the exact amount of water required are just as possible as systems that monitor pests digitally, with these pests being identified and their number and level of proliferation monitored so that they can be combated precisely and proactively.

The overall result is an agricultural sector that has a lower impact on the environment in terms of pesticides, conserves natural resources, generates higher yields and saves farmers costs. Smart Farming is utilizing and drawing closer to organic farming, resulting in lower expenditure as well as better protection of people and nature.

Sustainable agriculture is digital

Digitization in agriculture is one of the topics of focus within the Sunrise and Huawei Joint Innovation Center. On the basis of 5G, modern technologies are ensuring that farming is becoming more «smart» and therefore more sustainable and efficient. An array of pilot projects are demonstrating the benefits farmers can expect when data, drones, GPS and similar technologies interact with cattle and plants.

Digital innovation is emerging in all fields of business and life