Despite challenges brought on by Covid-19, Harper Adams University continues to make strides with its Hands Free Farm project. Jane Carley catches up with its progress.
Building on the achievements of the Hands Free Hectare (HFH), Harper Adams University (HAU) is now facing the challenges of extending autonomous agriculture to a farm scale research project.
HFH started in 2016 with the aim to be the first in the world to grow, tend and harvest a crop without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground.
The project was taken through two successful cropping cycles and won a number of awards.
Hands Free Farm takes this development further. It is a three-year project run in partnership between Harper Adams and Precision Decisions, along with a new partner, the UK division of Australian precision agriculture specialist FarmscanAg, and has attracted funding from Innovate UK.
The 35 hectares of land designated in 2019 is now being farmed with autonomous machinery.
Much of the area was flooded in the autumn of 2019/20 and plans for spring cropping were then brought to a halt by lockdown.
Kit Franklin, senior lecturer in agricultural engineering, says: “Because the work was research rather than commercial farming, it was not considered ‘essential’.
“However, the engineers were able to continue working from home, so when lockdown eased, we were able to progress with the equipment developed in our Connected Autonomous Vehicle project, which was tried and tested on the HFH.”
Three fields were planted with cover crops in summer 2020 to ‘get some hours on the clock’.
This included drilling headlands with the existing autonomous Iseki tractor and Sim-tech direct drill outfit.
“There were a few control glitches. When drilling, the ins and outs were not straightforward to get right,” says Mr Franklin.
“But by late summer Precision Decisions were able to press on with improvements to the route planning, while FarmscanAg reviewed the data logs for faults, which helped them to further enhance the tractor control.”
This work produced a more reliable system and as winter crops were being established, the team felt that they would be able to demonstrate it to farmers with confidence when Covid-19 restrictions allowed.
“It is now a lot easier to set up. Once the tractor is in position we can simply upload the route plan via a phone app and press start,” he says.
“It is not quite ‘production’ standard, but is simple, accurate and a huge improvement over HFH.”
Two fields of winter wheat totalling 20ha and one 1.8ha field of winter beans were established, with topping of the cover crop, spraying off, a light disc on 8ha of the land, drilling and pre-emergence spraying carried out autonomously.
“Again, flooding has been a problem and part of one field was too wet for the autonomous sprayer, so we have had to use a conventional sprayer for that particular area, with some of the crop failing,” says Mr Franklin.
The original Iseki tractor will be joined by two more this year, allowing two tractors to be dedicated to drilling in the autumn and the third for rolling.
“A priority this year will be the development of the ‘swarm’, while our autonomous Claas combine will also finally see action,” he says.
A new addition to the fleet is an Amazone 15m mounted sprayer with 1,000-litre tank, modified with caster wheels to offer additional support.
“A trailed sprayer would have been the ideal option, but unfortunately commercial agricultural sprayer
production focuses on larger machines,” he says.
“It is operated by Amazone’s own controller at the moment, but as it is IsoBus compatible, the aim is to integrate it with the FarmscanAg system on the tractor.”
Development work is set to get easier. The original Iseki was largely mechanical, meaning every lever had to be actuated for electronic control.
“It is currently being redeveloped to be the third tractor; the new additions are fly-by-wire so are easier to adapt,” he says.
Mr Franklin believes the growth in fully fly-by-wire tractors will make automation of production machines much easier.
“We are aiming for a one- or two-day set-up, similar to fitting autosteer,” he says.
“Early adopters are likely to be those that want to automate their existing tractors with a retro fit kit, and FarmscanAg and Precision Decisions are working to develop a commercial offering along these lines.
“In a similar way to how autosteer developed, we can see automation eventually becoming a factory option for proprietary tractors and then part of the standard specification package.”
The upscaled project has seen the team expand with the addition of a dedicated autonomous operator who will concentrate on field testing and cropping operations, which Mr Franklin reckons took up a total of six to seven weeks in 2020, to allow the engineers to focus on development.
Precision Decisions and FarmscanAg have also each added development staff to the project at their offices as well as jointly taking on a HAU engineering placement student.
The team also works closely with the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre, one of four government centres of agricultural excellence, which is based on the Harper Adams campus, providing workshop space and project management.
One benefit of robotics is its potential to attract talented individuals to work in agriculture, and with its base at an academic institution, the Hands Free Farm has already featured in student dissertations and projects, while prospective HAU applicants frequently cite automation among their interests.
Modules on robotics and automation also feature on the engineering curriculum.
“Students have a unique opportunity to benefit from practical demonstrations and the project is a source for lectures,” he says.
“We are also proud to already have HAU graduates working for other autonomous farming companies.”
An online forum with stakeholders ranging from Defra to the Health and Safety Executive has made further progress towards developing a code of practice for the operation of autonomous farm machinery after an industry working group set out the principles at a meeting at the Agri-Epi Centre in 2019.
“There is certainly an appetite to make it happen,” says Mr Franklin.
“Harper Adams’ chair of agri-tech economics, Prof James Lowenberg-DeBoer, is working with the British Standards Institute to arrange workshops and meetings to help develop the guidelines.
Prof Lowenberg-DeBoer says: “There are already relevant standards in place for testing and manufacturing agricultural robots, but not for operating them commercially.
“A working group in Australia has developed a code of practice, but in the UK we have different issues to consider, one of which is public access to farmland.”