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World first ‘farming by robots’ project makes a start

British researchers have embarked on a project that aims to take a barley crop from seed to harvest using fully automated machinery. It shows a glimpse of how our food crops might be produced in the years to come. Future Farming drills into the detail.

The world’s first field to be grown and harvested without anyone stepping foot on its soil or climbing into a tractor seat is under way, with the drilling of the chosen spring barley variety having taken place on schedule at the end of March.

Researchers at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, UK, who last year started an ambitious project entitled “Hands Free Hectare”, have completed the first stage in their plan to show there is no technological barrier to automated field agriculture.

Martin, Kit & Jonathan. Photo credit: Harper Adams University

Martin, Kit & Jonathan. Photo credit: Harper Adams University

Autonomous farm machinery

As such, they have had to create autonomous farm machinery – using small-scale equipment already available on the market and adapting it in the university’s engineering laboratories – as well as looking at safety concerns and the ability of the technology to cope with a range of environmental conditions.

To clarify, the machines will not be radio-controlled, but will operate independently in the field, which is why it has been dubbed “farming by robots”. For safety reasons, laser scanners will be used to monitor the front of the tractor and prevent any mishaps, stopping it if necessary.

Cultivator. Photo credit: Harper Adams University

Cultivator. Photo credit: Harper Adams University

Farming by robots

The research team’s first task involved creating and testing an automation system on an electric all-terrain vehicle and then incorporating it on to an Iseki tractor, which will be used for all the fieldwork – drilling, fertilising and spraying – so that it can navigate the hectare.

At a cost of about £10,000 (€11,750) for all the hardware, it was done for a reasonable spend, points out principal investigator Kit Franklin, and is much the same as many farmers will spend fitting a guidance system.

“We’ve used current open-source technology to create the system, but there still is an element of risk. Remote agronomy and application of all the inputs is a challenge – but it’s one that we’re happy to take on. “Pushing the boundaries is what engineering research is all about.”

Drilling deadline

Working with Precision Decisions and with a total of £200,000 funding from Innovate UK and others, the three-strong team has had to keep to a tight schedule to meet the drilling deadline. As well as Mr Franklin, Martin Abell and Jonathan Gill have been involved from day one.

Having sorted the tractor, they then found an appropriate drill and spray control system for the project, with a suitable combine being more difficult to source until the decision was taken to modify an old trials plot combine, rather than try and bring in a paddy combine.

Concerns to address

“A paddy combine appealed because it is small and on tracks, making it easier for us to control and turn it on the headlands,” explains Kit. He points out the technology is good enough and has been available for the past 10 years, but machinery manufacturers have been reluctant to adopt it.

“Many farmers are doing as much as they can already, using variable rates and guidance, along with sophisticated control systems on their sprayers. This project will take us to the next stage.” The limiting factors at the moment are public perception and legislation, he believes.

See also: Variable fertiliser approach raises dry-land maize yields

“Just as with driverless cars, the public has some concerns and these will need to be addressed. And there is no existing legislation to cover the use of robots, so we do need some laws and regulations for the industry to operate by.”

How will it work?

The field, which measures exactly 1ha, is square. It was subsoiled after last summer’s harvest, so that good seed-to-soil contact could be achieved from direct drilling.

A 1.5m tine drill, originally developed for vineyards, was used. Both fertiliser and agrochemical inputs will be applied through the sprayer, using a conventional sprayer control system, so the sprayer is a self-contained unit.

See also: Drone sensor detects hard-to-spot disease in vines

“We’ve adapted it to be very high-tech, so that it’s as precise as it could be. The agronomy of the crop will be done according to that of any spring barley crop, using current knowledge.”

The project has all come down to specifications, as the requirements of the system have to account for crop-row spacing and the shape of the field, so that the machinery can be co-ordinated. “It has been time-consuming, but it is very exciting. The possibilities for farmers are endless.”

The future for farming robotics

Automation will allow the use of multiple, smaller and lighter machines, often working together as a “swarm” in a more sustainable system, treating numerous crops in various fields, predicts Kit Franklin.

“They will enter the fields according to the conditions, reducing the amount of compaction and delivering high-resolution precision farming,” he says. That may mean treating different areas of the field, or even individual plants separately so input use is optimised.

See also: Easier tyre pressure control reduces soil structure damage

“It’s a far cry from having the huge machines that we see operating today, on ever-increasing widths.” By having more machines, it allows work rates to be maintained or improved, and makes better use of working windows, adds Mr Franklin.

“These lighter machines do far less damage to soils and allow greater application and resolution accuracy, which is critical for precision farming.”

Changing job roles

Jobs won’t disappear, but they will change, he acknowledges. “There may not be someone sitting on the seat in the cab, but they will be managing the fleet and monitoring the development of crops.” In the more immediate future, Mr Franklin is hoping the Hands Free Hectare project will lead to the commercialisation of a system to automate tractors, possibly as a bolt-on unit.

“It would also be good to develop and expand the project beyond just one year, so that we can investigate factors such as soil health, yields and water use over a number of years.” He expects to see a huge amount of change in automation in the next 30 years with new tools and services being launched. “This is what tomorrow’s farmer is going to be doing.”