Autonomous farm project expands in Britain

The project harvests grain using only robots and autonomous machinery, including a tractor, combine and drones

Extra funding has been made available to expand an autonomous arable farming project in the United Kingdom.

Initially launched in 2016 by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, the Hands Free Hectare project was designed to demonstrate that one hectare of grain (2.47 acres) could be grown to harvest without humans setting foot on the land.

Since then, the group has successfully harvested two seasons of grain by using only robots and autonomous machinery including a tractor, combine and drones.

Without setting foot in the one hectare field, the group remotely managed to perform all tasks associated with the crop, including preparing the ground, sowing the seeds, maintaining the crop and harvesting.

With $340,000 in government funding, the team converted a small Iseki tractor and a 25-year-old combine harvester with a two-metre header into autonomous robots with cameras, lasers and GPS systems.

No one was allowed to step in the field so drones were used to scoop up soil samples and take crop samples for testing, as well as for monitoring the crop for weeds and disease.

Hands Free Hectare photo

Riding on that initial success, the team at Hands Free Hectare have been awarded extra funding to expand their operations to a full farm of 35 hectares, or 85 acres.

The new Hands Free Farm is expected to be a three-year-long project, run in partnership again between Harper Adams and Precision Decisions, along with a new partner, the U.K. division of Australian precision agriculture specialist Farmscan.

The project is underway at the university’s campus in Shropshire where the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-Epi Centre) is providing the development space and project management support at their Midlands Agri-Tech Innovation Hub, which is also located on the university’s campus.

“This time, we’re planning to grow three different combinable crops across 35 hectares. We’re moving past the feasibility study, which the hectare provided us with, to now a vision of the future of farming,” said university mechatronics researcher Jonathan Gill.

“We want to prove the capability and ability of these systems in reducing the levels of soil compaction and precision application,” he said.

Precision Decisions engineer Martin Abell said they are hoping to solve problems like fleet management and vehicle logistics and navigation.

“We still believe that smaller vehicles are best, so we’ll be using up to three small tractors for the project, including our original Iseki tractor, and a Claas combine will be joining our old Sampo,” he said.

“This time, we’re moving away from the perfect hectare and to real-world situations. The fields will be irregular, there’ll be obstacles, undulating land and pathways.”

Hands Free Hectare photo

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