From the Bosch Farm to BoniRob
What could a technological company possibly have to do with agriculture?
As Bosch seeks to revolutionize agriculture with the aid of robotics, we can look back over various eras of agricultural technology that the company played a role in, all the way back to when company founder Robert Bosch took an interest in the subject in his spare time.
Robert Bosch and agriculture
“Agriculture in itself is one of the most interesting lines of business there is. It is more varied than virtually any other field, for it has to do with zoology, botany, geology, chemistry, and meteorology in their widest sense.”
These words from Robert Bosch reveal his affinity with agriculture, which is hardly surprising considering his parents ran an inn with livestock farming and a brewery near Ulm.
This also explains why Bosch had already toyed with the idea of purchasing the “Klein-Hohenheim” farm near Stuttgart around 1900. However, his wife Anna was far from keen on the idea. She was in all likelihood concerned that, if he added this project to his already very heavy workload, her husband would simply be taking on too much
Industrialization of agriculture? An experiment
After the first world war, Robert Bosch did eventually take his first steps into the world of agriculture. However, this was done less as a result of his passion for farming, and more as the result of an ill-advised investment. Around 1912, he had acquired shares in a company in Beuerberg, Bavaria, that planned to use the Ekenberg process of electrolytic hydrogenation to produce peat for use in the manufacture of fuel. However, this process proved to be economically inviable. But far from being discouraged, this setback actually fueled his ambition. Having made plans to transform the expanses of poor soil in Upper Bavaria into a model farming estate, seven previously independent farmsteads were amalgamated to create the Bosch Farm: “Back then, it seemed to me a great feat to transform a mere bog into a land of milk and honey.”
Economy and ecology
The principles that governed his industrial projects were also to be brought to bear in his agricultural activities. Bosch’s plan was to use state-of-the-art technology to produce high-quality products that could be sold in the region. This project got under way with the help of special machines, and the newly developed process of silage making was introduced. At the same time, Bosch even then made use of what we would call eco-friendly methods in creating an environment that would attract hosts of birds, thus providing a natural means of pest control.
On the farm at Mooseurach, Robert Bosch built a house for his own family and accommodation for his workforce that soon numbered over 300. Yet despite his best efforts, the Bosch Farm remained a subsidized operation. As he would later admit, he “acquired [the Bosch Farm] completely by chance.” From that point onward, he firmly believed that farming should be left to those who really understood what they were doing.
From the farm to hydraulics
Quite irrespective of this, some ten years after the death of its founder in 1942, the company ventured into the new territory of equipment for agricultural machinery.
At that time, in the early 1950s, German agriculture was nowhere near as technologically advanced as its western neighbors’. Manual labor played a greater role than made sense, from sowing right through to harvest. This prompted efforts at Bosch to simplify work in the fields with clever technological aids.
The first was a hydraulic lift, which performed the cumbersome lifting and lowering of the plow with the aid of the tractor’s engine. By attaching a hydraulic system consisting of a pump, oil reservoir, control unit, cylinder, and pressure lines to the engine, this ingenious idea turned otherwise arduous work into child’s play. A gentle pull on the lever of the control unit was all that was needed.
Hydraulics replace muscle-power
The pump used the power of the engine and transferred it to the hydraulic cylinder, which set the position of the plow via pressure lines. Engine oil was used to inject the power into the pressure lines.
The use of this compact technology in agriculture bore fruit and paved the way for many fields, which can be broadly divided into industrial hydraulics and mobile hydraulics — hydraulics for vehicles versus stationary objects, such as manufacturing machinery. Bosch began systematically expanding the production of hydraulic products as early as 1958. In order to maintain its technical lead, the company set up the “Technisches Zentrum Hydraulik” at its new Schwieberdingen location in 1969.
The acquisition of Rexroth AG and restructuring of Bosch-Rexroth AG, now the Drive & Control business unit, reorganized this section at Bosch. As a result, nowadays Bosch hydraulics can also be found far afield from tractors — at the Panama Canal, on the stage of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, in London’s Tower Bridge or in the 220-meter-long Maeslantkering storm surge barrier near Rotterdam on the Netherlands’ North Sea coast.
From hydraulics to robotics
"However, it is no longer hydraulics that form the link between Bosch and agriculture, but rather robotics, sensor technology, and networking. The kind of sensors that have become common technology at Bosch for use in automobiles and smartphones can also be planted in asparagus fields for recording weather conditions. This information can be used in an app to pinpoint the right time for harvesting, watering or covering the plants.
But that’s not all. Bosch has joined forces with scientific partners to develop a multifunctional agricultural robot platform that can be fitted with different components to perform a variety of tasks. It uses findings from robotics, sensor technology, and networking. The BoniRob, as it is called, can not only conduct soil and plant analyses, but also remove weeds, for example. This technology also opens up new lines of applied research. The robots can visit single plants every day to test their properties. With regard to cultivating and breeding plants, the technology can also provide completely new insights into how environmental conditions and treatment methods affect plant growth and quality.
Since 1998 I have been at Bosch. I’m working in the Historical Communications department as spokesperson and researcher, in charge of all product history requests. I also take care of contacts to technology and transportation museums.
Before joining Bosch, I studied in history and philosophy at Universities of Konstanz and Hamburg. After graduating, I was editor of a scientific journal and research associate at Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin.