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Cropping a hectare of land using only automated machinery - Harper Adams’ robot tractor gets to work

Aiming to farm an entire hectare without stepping foot on the ground, Harper Adams’ remote farming project, Hands Free Hectare gets to work. Jane Carley reports.


Jane   Carley

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A trial at Harper Adams University is cropping a hectare of land using only automated machinery.

Harper Adams University is progressing with a project to crop a hectare of land using only automated equipment, and has now established spring barley on the trial area at its Edgmond, Shropshire base.

 

The remote farming project, known as Hands Free Hectare, is a joint venture with precision farming specialist Precision Decisions, and is being led by Harper Adams’ Kit Franklin and Jonathan Gill with former HAU student Martin Abell, recruited by Precision Decisions to work on the trial.

 

Kit Franklin explains: “Farming practice has evolved to require increasingly large machinery which leads to compaction and reduced yields, with farmers then needing to use more machinery to remedy compaction. Larger equipment such as wider sprayer booms also lead to a reduction in resolution of precision farming, so we are farming less precisely.”

Precision Decisions’ Martin Abell monitors progress from ‘Mission Control’.

By using small robots to work the land, compaction is reduced and precision farming resolution increased, so margins improve, he continues: “A 400hp tractor and 12m drill could be replaced by three or four small tractors and drills. These ‘swarms’ need to be managed, so there is still a labour requirement, but the operator’s time is freed up to manage the crops and study the agronomy.”

 

Rather than requiring the development of the futuristic robots being developed by some of the multinational manufacturers, the Hands Free Hectare project, uses familiar machinery – an Iseki TLE3400 38hp tractor, with scaled down implements.

 

“One objective is to utilise machinery that is affordable and readily available, rather than bespoke,” says Mr Franklin. “Iseki’s importer Ransomes Jacobsen approached us and the tractor is ideal, having a simple hydrostatic drive and being small and lightweight enough to minimise compaction.”

 

The tractor has been modified with the assistance of electronics manufacturer Linak, and sales engineer Simon Bedford explains: “Hydraulics used for actions such as operating the throttle, changing speed or lifting/lowering the linkage are replaced with electronic actuators so that they can be controlled remotely.”

Open source software is being tweaked to manage operations such as turning and lifting/lowering implements.

Operations are activated in conjunction with an autosteer system on the tractor which follows waypoints generated by mapping the field using Mission Planner drone software; the guidance map will ultimately be monitored via the farmer’s office PC or via smartphone or tablet.

 

During the development phase, Martin Abell has set up a ‘mission control’ adjacent to the trial plot to study and fine tune how well the outfit follows the plan and to examine the crop.

 

He explains; “The tractor uses lasers to detect obstacles for safety and will cut the engine out if it gets too close to the fence or a person or if another machine passes in front of it.”

 

The Hands Free Hectare was treated with herbicide in autumn 2016, using a 4.5m tractor mounted sprayer.

 

In late April, spring barley was established, using a low disturbance Sim-Tech Aitchison 1.5m direct drill with liquid fertiliser placement, and subsequently rolled.

Harper Adam's Jonathan Gill makes final checks before work commences.

“The drill is normally used to establish inter-row grass strips in vineyards, and is ground driven,” explains Simon Clarke of Sim-Tech Aitchison. “We took the pre-slicing discs off the drill to reduce its weight, but otherwise there was little difference in its operation. Forward speeds are only about 2kph but this increases the accuracy of drilling.”

 

While project partner Precision Decisions is a distributor for some of the leading names in precision farming software, the Harper Adams team has used open source software, developed by hobbyists which is freely available online.

 

Kit Franklin explains: “Existing commercial software doesn’t offer the capacity for more complex operations such as lifting or turning an implement. We don’t have the budget or manpower to develop such software from scratch, so we have chosen to tweak open source software. It does mean that there are often glitches to overcome, but equally we can freely share the information with partners, farmers and our students.”

Kit Franklin with the project logo.

The project team has purchased a 2m plot combine which will also be given the automation treatment before harvest, and Jonathan Gill is considering how to manage the operation.

 

“Steering and header lift will be automated, and the logical progression is to use an automated chaser bin or to plan set points in the field at which the harvester will unload.”

 

While the initial project duration is just one year, the partners are already looking to the future.

 

“We could look at more crops or more fields or focus on the technology advances that we have gained, such as a low-cost autosteer system,” says Mr Franklin.

 

Mr Gill adds: “If more partners wish to come on board we could expand the range of machines that are automated. And we have focused specifically on farming issues, other collaborators may wish to study at transport or safety.”

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