The Christ Child arrived a few days early this year at the field laboratories of Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Bonn: the Rectorate had invested significantly and approved four new large vehicles for a total of more than 500,000 euros for the sites essential for agricultural research. Only last week, the last of the ordered tractors was delivered and could now be handed over to the users by Provost Holger Gottschalk. In the future, the tractors will benefit research and teaching, and in particular the PhenoRob cluster of excellence.
"It’s like Christmas and Easter together," jokes Kanaan Khodr, a third-year apprentice at Frankenforst Campus, the animal science field laboratory of the University of Bonn in Königswinter-Vinxel. The predecessor of the new Fendt 514 tractor was already in use when the apprentice was not even born. In terms of mileage, the old tractor had circled the globe several times since then; now it has been taken out of service and traded in. Its ultra-modern successor will also help to grow fodder for the animals on the experimental farm.
This is due not least to the good care that the technicians at the field laboratories had given the previous vehicles. But finally it was time to invest, says Ralf Pude, Managing Director of the field laboratories. While the newly acquired tractors meet today’s standards in agriculture, attention was paid to steering systems that are compatible with the experimental design: "This means we can pre-plan the trial plots on the computer and transfer the tracks that the tractor is to travel to it. This is a huge relief with about 100 trials we run every year!" In order to be able to use the modern tractors to their full potential, all employees have received extensive training.
A unique selling point for the university
Provost Holger Gottschalk brought the greetings of the Rectorate and symbolically handed over the keys of the tractors to Professor Pude. The head of the University administration was happy to invest: "The Faculty of Agriculture and the PhenoRob Cluster of Excellence are unique features of the University of Bonn. With your research, you make an important contribution to grand challenges facing humanity, such as feeding the growing world population and a sustainable economy. Excellent science also needs excellent equipment." Gottschalk increased the joy even further by pointing out that another order for large-scale equipment had already been placed.
The four large vehicles will be used in the future at the field laboratories Klein-Altendorf Campus (plant cultivation and gardening), Frankenforst Campus (animal sciences) and Wiesengut Campus (organic farming). Among them is "Robotti", an autonomous field robot from the company Agrointelli, which in the future will assist the researchers and their team at the Wiesengut in Hennef and will operate without a driver. The vehicle has a track width of three meters. Its tires transport its payload without driving on the test areas themselves. A control panel the size of a brick is all that test technician Justin Holldack needs to maneuver the device.
Once at the starting point, the robot then runs a previously programmed routine as if by magic. Although a human must be nearby at all times when Robotti makes its rounds, the autonomous device also masters the unexpected without any problems: it can distinguish plant debris from real obstacles. When in doubt, the robot stops and calls a human to help.
Precision is "Robotti’s" strength
Prof. Thomas Döring, Scientific Director of Wiesengut Campus, does not believe that robots can replace humans in agriculture. But automation is making its way into agriculture, and science must keep pace, he says. "For us, the first thing now is to gain experience with the new system. Because if farmers are going to use it, we need to know it too." In the spring, "Robotti" will lend a hand to the team from the University’s field laboratory for organic farming, the Wiesengut in Hennef. Then the machine will drive over the fields and sow wheat and corn with great precision. The employees of the Wiesengut will work out the "timetable" for this in detail at their desks beforehand. The robot also masters fertilizing and "crop care," as mechanical weed removal is known in technical jargon, perfectly.
The largest tractor, a Fendt 724, will go to Klein-Altendorf Campus. Provost Holger Gottschalk was personally convinced of its effectiveness and was also allowed to drive the tractor with 238 horsepower himself. It was not the first time that the business graduate had driven a tractor. He has family roots in agriculture and even flirted with studying agricultural sciences at a young age, he revealed to the assembled staff. Gottschalk went into raptures after his little spin on the tractor: "There’s no comparison to the old days. You don’t even notice that you’re moving a giant machine weighing almost ten tons - and that’s just with a little joystick. It’s quite a great experience!"
Managing Director of Field Laboratories