A farm automation project in the UK has successfully harvested its first barley crop using only autonomous vehicles and drones. The output was 4.5 tonnes, which will now be used to make beer.
The ground-breaking Hands-Free Hectare (HFHa), run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, aimed to be the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop with only autonomous vehicles and drones. The whole project cost less than UK£200k, funded by Precision Decisions and the UK funding agency Innovate UK. It used machinery that was readily available for farmers to buy: open source technology, and an autopilot from a drone for the navigation system.
The Iseki tractor which was used earlier in the project for the spraying, drilling and rolling, was smaller and lighter than most tractors used nowadays. The team’s mentality that smaller is better was carried through to harvest which was completed with a combine harvester designed to harvest trial plots. The team believe that the use of smaller agricultural machines could improve soil and plant health.
Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, said, “There’s been a focus in recent years on making farming more precise, but the larger machines that we’re using are not compatible with this method of working. They’re also so heavy that their damaging farmers’ soils.”
“If combines in the future were similar to the size of the combine we used in this project, which was a little Sampo combine with a header unit of only two meters, it would allow more precise yield maps to be created. They would also be much lighter machines.”
He added, “Despite our combine being 25 years old, it performed absolutely wonderfully. It’s phenomenal to know that I was part of this world-first project. To know that we’ve actually done it and you can now look out at the field and see it’s all gone. We grew it, nursed it and now we’ve harvested it, completely autonomously. What an achievement.”
New talent needed to develop the technology
“The weather can be an issue when farming, and provide only small windows for work to be completed; we’ve experienced it ourselves with this project. Just like anywhere in the UK, we’ve had to adjust our spraying times and harvest times due to the rain. This is part of the reason machines have been getting so much bigger over the years; we need to be able to complete work quickly. We believe the best solution is that in the future, farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles. These will be able to go out and work in the fields, allowing the farmer to use their time more effectively and economically instead of having to drive up and down the fields.”
“But it’s going to take new talent entering the industry to develop the technology. We hope that this project has helped to inspire some people and shown them the range of interesting and innovative jobs that are available now in agriculture.”
Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for the industry lead, Precision Decisions, said: “This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now and we’ve done that. We set-out to identify the opportunities for farming and to prove that it’s possible to autonomously farm the land, and that’s been the great success of the project.”
“Our major challenge leading up to harvest was getting the combine ready. We spent a lot of time practising; getting our headland turns right and on the day they appeared to be perfect, which was amazing to see.”
“The combine drove a lot better than the tractor. We made a bit of a breakthrough with that. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to make the same adaptions to our tractor, so even though we’d practised a rolling team, as a precaution during the actual trial, we didn’t allow the tractor to get too close to the combine to avoid any accidents.
“Throughout the year we’ve been predicting a yield of 5 tonnes. Looking in the trailer, it looks like we’re not quite there. Our agronomist predicted 4.5 tonnes and it looks like he’s on the money.”
The team hope to bring the project back by repeating the experiment, but with a winter crop, and are looking for funding for 2018.