The concept of a farm being managed entirely by robots came a step closer this year following the success of Hands Free Hectare’s second harvest. Jonathan Wheeler reports.
Harper Adams University’s Hands Free Hectare (HFH) project aims to highlight the growing capability of auto-controlled machines by growing a crop without humans entering the field – either on foot or at the steering wheel of a machine.
And having proven the concept on single hectare of land, the project team is eyeing a Hands Free Farm, in which the ideas will be tested over up to 40 hectares.
In 2017/18 they solved several of the problems they encountered in 2016/7.
Firstly, they managed to steer machines much straighter, which culminated in being able to run an autonomously-controlled tractor/trailer beside the autonomously-controlled combine so it could offload grain on-the-move.
This is a crucial achievement, says researcher Jonathan Gill, and opens up the potential for running fleets of robot vehicles in co-ordinated or synchronised teams.
Mechatronics engineer for Precision Decisions Martin Abell adds: “We are pleased with our harvest, but our key achievement this year was completing a rolling team. Last year, we tried an unload on-the-move, but we were not able to get our tractor close enough to the Sampo combine because of the accuracy issues we were experiencing with the control systems at the time.
“We have continued to make improvements to our system on the tractor, including adding an auto-start so we can start it remotely if required. We enhanced the auto-pilot in time for drilling which led to improved driving accuracy and, therefore, an increased field coverage.
“Thanks to these improvements, this year, we were also able to run the rolling team; unloading grain from the combine into a trailer behind our tractor which was running alongside it, which makes the harvest process far more efficient and quicker to complete. This was something we had talked about doing before the project had even begun; we had laughed and joked and said it would be the icing on the cake and it was great it worked this year."
HFH is preparing a funding bid to Innovate UK to run the project on larger scale within the Harper Adams farm.
“That might be five or six fields and we might grow two or three different crops,” says Mr Franklin. It could also include trials of new technologies like spot spraying and guided inter-row hoeing."
The University is already involved in two key pieces of related research.
First, it is working on the development of 5G communications, which may be needed to control teams of vehicles.
Second, it is working on development of a farm-scale control network that would guide vehicles from shed to field and back, and control all the activities they might do in a day’s work.
They also introduced another technical innovation to this year’s project, called the Clam. This is a sharp-jawed claw suspended under a drone which is lowered into the crop to cut samples of plant tissue or grain.
This year’s crop was drilled four weeks later than ideal, which reduced its yield, suggests Kieran Walsh, Hutchinsons’ agronomist on the HFH team.
“It grew well even though the weather was wet. It suffered a bit during the continuous rain in spring [83mm during March alone] and then survived the drought. But the field held onto the moisture.”
One observation from winter was that the field had less surface water and puddling than those around it, which they suggest could be due to better infiltration.
Some of the crop rows were slightly crooked due to the drill crabbing slightly in wet conditions; otherwise the control was greatly improved.
“The tramlines were much straighter and there were fewer drill misses, which meant we got much better spray and fertiliser coverage,” says Mr Walsh.
Drilling misses fell from 2.82 per cent in the first year of the project to 0.35 per cent this year.
Crop: Winter wheat
Variety: KWS Zyatt
Harvest date: August 14
Moisture: 17.8 per cent
Protein: 12.2 per cent
Bushel weight: 73.6kg/hl
Yield: 6.48 tonnes/hectare
Source: Hands Free Hectare project