Embedded Systems for Digital Farming
Ostrau is located between Leipzig and Dresden, nestled into the hills of the "Lommatzscher Pflege", an area dubbed "the bread basket of Saxony". The agricultural heritage of this region dates back to time immemorial. But Ostrau has more to offer than fertile soil: for 20 years, this little town has been producing pioneering farming technologies.
It is taking a leading role in shaping the future of the agricultural sector: the company Agricon is headquartered here. Rather than speaking of Agriculture 4.0, Agricon focuses on precision farming and digital crop cultivation. Much like Industry 4.0, precision farming employs intelligent networks to increase the effectiveness of agricultural operations. The secret to its success is the specific cultivation of individual plots: fertilizers, pesticides and seeds are applied with the utmost precision. Not only does this method yield higher crop volumes, it also ensures greater environmental sustainability than conventional cultivation techniques. Farmers and agricultural engineers both benefit from this especially safe and user-friendly approach.
The digitalization has arrived in the agricultural sector
Subarea-specific farming is not a new concept: the method has been in practice since the 1990s. Due to its complexity, however, subarea-specific farming used to be extremely laborious for most farmers. Agricon is the first company to launch a holistic solution that makes agricultural work easier rather than harder. During our visit in Ostrau, we asked Agricon about the practical application of precision farming. Antje Krieger, Marketing Manager, and Ben Bretschneider, System Integrator at Agricon, explained their approach to us. "Precision farming refers to the interplay of precise metrology, automated processes and internet-based data administration."
Krieger and Bretschneider used the concept of basal dressing to elucidate precision farming: the first step is the collection of soil samples. They are collected by Agricon experts using a specially equipped vehicle. Using the data derived from the samples, so-called nutrient allocation maps are created, which constitute the basis for the development of application maps. The latter task is carried out by Agriport, Agricon’s own cloud-based software. The application maps define which parts of a field require increased or reduced fertilization. Agriport sends the allocation maps directly to the tractor, where the Agribox processes them. Besides the software, this is the actual key component of the holistic solution by Agricon: a robust industrial computer that translates the data that is output by Agriport – in this case, the nutrient allocation map – and controls the quantity of fertilizer applied to the fields using the bus system of the vehicle. Simultaneously, it documents what amount of fertilizer has been applied and which areas have been fertilized. These data are then transferred back to Agriport via the Agribox, and the farmer receives automatic documentation of the quantity of fertilizer that has been used. This principle is applicable not only to basal dressing but also to nitrogen fertilization and pest control.
For Agricon, the development of the Agribox constituted an important milestone on the way to perfecting digital crop cultivation. Ben Bretschneider explains: "Thanks to the Agribox, we can receive and process data directly in the tractor." He emphasizes that Agricon has successfully eliminated typical sources of error with this system.
Use of an IoT-compatible box PC as a central control unit
Agricon has been working with the embedded specialist Syslogic as its trusted hardware partner for the Agribox. Syslogic equipped a classic industrial PC with a wireless connection for Agricon. It functions as a central control unit that manages and monitors the digital crop cultivation.
One of the main reasons for Agricon to choose Syslogic was the long-term availability of its industrial computers. Bretschneider explained: "We have had problems with discontinued hardware components in the past." As a result, Agricon was sometimes forced to retrofit its entire system infrastructure after using it for only a brief period of time.
Agricon is glad to have found a reliable hardware partner in Syslogic, as the company guarantees that its industrial computers will remain available for an extraordinarily long time. Syslogic is one of the few European companies that develops and manufactures its own embedded solutions. Correspondingly, it attaches great importance to the long-term availability of all components as early as the developmental stage. This includes the exclusive use of processor platforms complying with the industrial use conditions by Intel, which stipulate an expanded temperature range of -40 to +85 degrees Celsius and an availability period of ten years.
The high requirements of mobile computing
In addition to the factor of availability, Agricon chose the Syslogic industrial computers for their robustness and flexible adaptability. Bretschneider explained: "Agricultural machinery constantly generates vibration, shock and extreme temperatures." Syslogic was able to prove its eligibility from experience, as the company already supplies machines for trains, construction machines and special-purpose vehicles. The company also produced a prototype extremely quickly.
By now, the Agribox has been in use for two years, and Agricon and Syslogic are already working on a joint follow-up project. After all, there is still a great deal of untapped potential in the field of precision farming.
Expansion strategy for Eastern Europe
Antje Krieger commented: "Besides our main market, Germany, we are currently focusing especially on the Eastern European countries; a lot of large agricultural companies are headquartered in the region." To facilitate this endeavor, Agricon has established a network of franchising partners. Its local partners work the markets with their own sales and technical staff.
Agricon is already employing approximately 100 people. This is an impressive feat, considering that the current Managing Director, Peer Leithold, founded the company in 1997 with two partners. It is equally impressive, however, that the Agricon stayed true to its roots despite its rapid success: Peer Leithold’s farm in Ostrau remains the headquarters of the company to this day, and the manager still lives there himself. The former farm has been converted and expanded very effectively. Like the company itself, it combines agricultural tradition with high-tech equipment.
Antje Krieger and Ben Bretschneider firmly believe this to be the reason behind Agricon’s continued, successful recruitment of committed, excellently trained employees to the somewhat remote town of Ostrau. They agree: "Working here is a lot of fun, and you can truly make a difference." Both of them deliberately chose to work for Agricon in Ostrau. They emphasize that working in the middle of Saxony’s bread basket offers them great advantages. After our visit, we had no doubt that Agricon will continue to shape the future of the agricultural industry with its clever business idea, state-of-the-art technology and enthusiastic team.