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Making farming cheaper and more eco-friendly through vehicle routing in 3D

Researchers from Masaryk University have now been awarded a grant to help alleviate problems with soil degradation and water pollution.

The research consortium led by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki focuses on ways to make agriculture more efficient, with the MUNI researchers responsible for the technical aspects of the project. Project is funded by the European Union and China under the H2020 programme.

As a part of the project, geographers from the Faculty of Science are studying the use of farming vehicle tracking to limit the loss of topsoil and water pollution. Using a combination of sensors, electronic equipment in the vehicles and satellites, they can obtain information such as the consumption of each vehicle and the obstacles encountered in each field as well as the amount of fertiliser used or past crop yield, which can be used to estimate future yields.

All this information can then be used to plan an optimal schedule for all the work done in the fields to simultaneously make it more eco-friendly and more economical.

Farming vehicle tracking

Topsoil loss is often caused by erosion, and unsuitable ploughing methods are one of the contributory factors. “We will compare data from ten European countries and China obtained by tracking farming vehicles and comparing satellite images and other map sources,” says Associate Professor Tomáš Řezník from the Department of Geography, who is the project leader at Masaryk University, when discussing the main focus of the project.

Experts have been monitoring farming vehicles in the Czech Republic and elsewhere for over five years. “We have found that the ideal route of a vehicle from an ecological perspective is different from a route that’s ideal from an economic perspective. In other words, farmers can be more eco-friendly, but at a higher cost. Our new project aims to help achieve sustainable farming, which is both more eco-friendly and more economical,” says Řezník.

While there are already models that optimise vehicle routes, they only work in 2D. The current project looks at optimal routes in 3D. “We are accounting for things like the difference in consumption when driving up or down a hill, especially when towing a sprayer tank weighing several tons. Our goal is to make the routes even more efficient with regard to the operating costs,” says Řezník about the main benefits of this international project. The project findings can also be used in autonomous vehicles that move in the field according to the projected route.

Masaryk University has two roles in the project: besides technical coordination, it is also the leading partner for relations with China, which have been developed by Professor Milan Konečný. In the grant competition, MU and its partners won over consortia led by top international institutions, such as the Dutch Wageningen University & Research and the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research.

“The SIEUSOIL project provides a showcase for precision agriculture, which is based on interventions made at the right time and place with the right intensity. The work of our consortium ties in with the activities of the United Nations and the ongoing environmental policy reviews in many countries of the world,” explains Řezník, adding that the project will run until mid-2022.

Small Chinese fields complicate matters

The MUNI experts will now start to collect data about yields, consumption, and soil quality in the individual participating countries, which include the Czech Republic and China as well as various Central European countries and several countries from the Mediterranean region.

“We are already aware of some complications. The fields in China, for example, are too small to allow for any meaningful conclusions based on satellite images. Their system is still based on fields of about half a hectare, while Czech fields measure ten hectares on average,” describes Řezník. “However, the Czech Republic and China are both ‘leaders’ when it comes to the amount of fertiliser used, which leads to high levels of groundwater pollution.”

Over the following three years, researchers will work on collecting further data and using it to calibrate the model. The project should produce a patented device with software that should be able to model the best routes for farming vehicles. “It would be great if the results of our work were available to small farmers for free or at an affordable price,” hopes Řezník.