Wageningen University hopes to create an autonomous farm. The aim behind the project is not only to demonstrate its technical feasibility, but also to involve farmers, the education sector and society in high-tech food production.
Wageningen University and Research (WUR) has set itself the aim of creating a training farm that runs fully autonomously. The Netherlands has all of the technological expertise available for this, says Erik Pekkeriet, who is responsible for the Agro Food Robotics department at WUR.
In addition to all of the country’s knowledge institutions, he points to companies that have established themselves on the Wageningen Campus. The Japanese manufacturer Kubota also recently began focusing on developing autonomous tractors and smart tools.
It is not yet clear exactly what form the ‘autonomous farm’ will take, but Pekkeriet’s preference is for open-field crop farming. “It is precisely crop farmers, open-field growers, and fruit growers who are at risk of lagging behind with rapid technological developments, certainly if you consider vertical farms that are already able to work entirely autonomously and can be controlled remotely.”
Erik Pekkeriet, WUR:
In order to maintain our leading position, we need to continue to challenge ourselves and set the bar high
Wageningen is regarded as the world’s best agriculture ecosystem, based in a country with the most advanced farmers. “In order to maintain that leading position, we need to continue to challenge ourselves and set the bar high,” says Pekkeriet. “We want to connect everything together in order to create an entire ecosystem that enables us to do everything from sowing to harvesting without ever stepping onto the field.”
According to the programme manager, it is important to involve the education sector, farmers and society closely in such developments in order to prevent alienation from high-tech agriculture. He believes the continued robotisation of food production is inevitable, in fact. Not only because it is all technically possible, but also in order to reduce crop farming’s dependency on chemicals, artificial fertiliser and labour, and to continue to automate recording of information for the purpose of ensuring transparency in the supply chain for customers, without increasing the administrative burden for farmers.
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The WUR researcher believes the ‘Farm of the Future’ would be a logical location for the creation of an autonomous farm. This Farm of the Future is an initiative of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality in collaboration with WUR. This model farm is scheduled to become operational in 2020 across WUR’s training/pilot farms in Lelystad.
It is to be a place where innovations in circular agriculture are developed and tested, before being passed on to training farms that are looking to use them. “But if we can’t use them in Lelystad, we will look for another suitable location,” adds a determined Pekkeriet.
The British are the international leaders in the development of autonomous open-field growing with the ‘HandsFree Hectare’ project. In 2015, researchers at specialist agricultural institution Harper Adams University in the UK began their attempt to cultivate one hectare of grain without the involvement of humans.
For two years in succession, the British team cultivated and harvested one hectare of grain fully autonomously without a driver or agronomist setting foot on the plot. Last year, they succeeded in getting a small combine harvester to unload into an autonomously driven tipper while in motion.
In recognition of this success, Harper Adams University was awarded a grant from Innovate UK, which has enabled the project to expand this year into a 35-hectare crop farm. The University now operates a ‘HandsFree Farm’, which has become a three-year project.