In a hugely ambitious project – to farm one-hectare (2.47 acres) of fields purely with robots – the engineers at Harper Adams University are now well underway in achieving a world first. Farmers Guardian catches up with their progress.
Imagine farming and harvesting spring crops without ever stepping foot into it? Engineers from Harper Adams University are doing just that as they are now well underway with their ambitious goal of farming a field exclusively by robots.
Supported and led by precision farming specialist Precision Decisions, the team of three engineers have created their first autonomous farming machinery, ready for drilling one-hectare (2.47 acres) of cereal crops in March.
Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, says: “We’ve created a prototype and tested the automation system on an electric all-terrain vehicle in the field. We’ve proved it can drive up and down in a consistent straight line; this is what we aim to achieve during our first task of planting the crop.”
The next step is to incorporate this system onto the Iseki tractor which will be used by the team for drilling and spraying.
“The project, and engineering as a whole, comes down to specifications and this is definitely true with this project.
The requirements of the entire system need to account for the crop row spacing, even the shape of the field, to coordinate with the tractor and machinery available.”
The project entitled ‘Hands Free Hectare’ have been documenting its progress on social media and attracted international interest from across the world.
Resarcher Kit Franklin says: “As a team, we believe there is now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. This project gives us the opportunity to prove this and change current public perception.
“Previously, people have automised sections of agricultural systems, but funding and interest generally only goes towards one single area. We’re hoping to string everything together to create one whole system, which will allow us to farm our hectare of cereal crop from establishment to harvest, without having to go into the field.
“We are confident we are going to be successful implementing current open source technology, but obviously there is an element of risk. This is the first time in the world this has been done, but pushing boundaries is what engineering research is about."
The team are using small-scale machinery which is already available on the market, and adapting these in the university’s agricultural engineering labs ready for the autonomous field work.
“We will be drilling a spring crop in March. April to July will comprise crop husband activities, with remote agronomy and autonomous application of required inputs and then harvesting in August and September,” he adds.
Funding for the project is being provided through the Innovate UK – Satellites and agri-food competition. The competition is providing funding to projects aiming to improve the productivity of agri-food systems using satellite technology.
Martin Abell, of Precision Decisions, says the selection process has been important and time consuming.
“The drill which we’ll be using is a vineyard drill which is normally used to add green manure [cover crops] between vines to help the soil retain nutrients.
“The coulters and seed metering mechanism are identical to those used on conventional versions of the drill and so it suits our application perfectly.
“The spray system we’ve selected is not only appropriate for the tractor, giving sufficient capacity to cover the area, but also works with common agricultural practices.
“We’re going to use a conventional sprayer controller, the same system which can be bought by a farmer. This means the sprayer will be a self-contained unit, looking after itself while the tractor navigates the hectare."
Safety is also an important focus and various preventative measures have been put in place.
“It is incredibly important we have safety systems enabled in the unlikely situation something goes wrong. The machines will not be radio-controlled but act autonomously. We’ve found laser scanners which will monitor the front of the tractor and stop it should anything be too close.
“It’s been a challenge to find systems which work with our vehicles in conditions robots aren’t normally put in.”
Alongside preparing the tractor for drilling in a couple of months’ time, the team are also focusing on creating a mission control. This will provide a platform to see the field in real-time and supplement feedback from the robots while working.
Due to the popularity of the project, the engineering department are helping the project by providing a camera which will be fixed to the outside of mission control. Here they are hoping to ‘live-stream’ important events in the field.
Kit says: “Automation is the future of farming and we are currently at a stage where farm machinery has got to unsustainable sizes.
“Over the years agricultural machines have been getting bigger increasing work rates. This has suited the UK’s unpredictable climatic working windows and reduced rural staff availability.
“But with these larger machines, we are seeing a number of issues, including reduced soil health through compaction which hinders plant growth, as well as reduced application and measuring resolution, critical for precision farming, as sprayer and harvesting widths increase.
“Automation will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction. These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.
“It’s not about putting people out of jobs; instead changing the job they do. The tractor driver won’t be physically in the tractor driving up and down a field. Instead, they will be a fleet manager and agricultural analyst, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops.
Follow the team’s progress on their website (handsfreehectare.com) and via social media – Twitter (@FreeHectare), Facebook (@HandsFreeHectare), YouTube (Hands Free Hectare HFH)