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Hands Free Hectare shortlisted for BBC Food and Farming Award

Posted 28 March 2018

The team hope that this project has helped to inspire some people and shown them the range of interesting and innovative jobs that are available in agriculture.

The world-first Hands Free Hectare (HFH) project at Harper Adams University has been shortlisted for a BBC Food and Farming Award.

The project, which proved that a crop could be cultivated without being touched by human hands and was run in collaboration with Precision Decisions, is in the final three for The Farming Today Future Food Award.

The team of engineers who carried out the HFH project believed that there’s now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. The project gave them the opportunity to prove this and change the current public perception along with highlighting the new and innovative careers available in the agricultural engineering sector.

The project wasn’t only about proving that the technology was ready, but also to highlight the issues being caused to soils by using ever-larger agricultural machines.

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, a number of issues are being seen. These include reduced soil health through compaction which hinders plant growth, as well as reduced application and measuring resolution which are critical for precision farming, as sprayer and harvesting widths have increased too.

But moving back to fleets of smaller machines is problematic as the rural workforce has already declined. Consequently, another way to drive the smaller machines needs to be established; leading back to the autonomous machines of the HFH. 

The team turned an Iseki tractor and Sampo combine, which are smaller and lighter than most machinery used nowadays, into robots. Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, said: “If combines in the future were similar to the size of the combine we used in this project, which had a header unit of only two meters, it would allow more precise yield maps to be created. They would also be much lighter machines.”

The team believe that current jobs on the farm will be remoulded, not lost. 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 analysts, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops.

But it’s going to take new talent entering the industry to develop the technology. The team hope that this project has helped to inspire some people and shown them the range of interesting and innovative jobs that are available in agriculture.

Even with challenges from the weather, and needing to turn around the project in under a year, along with meeting standard farming practice deadlines, the team managed to achieve their goal, and harvested a total yield of just over four tonnes of spring barley.

It’s been labelled as the most expensive crop to be grown in the country last year, but the proof-of-concept study was successful and the team are now continuing into a second year; this time hoping to improve their yield through improving the accuracy of their machinery.

The BBC Food & Farming Awards were launched in 2000, to mark the 20th anniversary of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.

The mission statement then, which remains true to this day, was “to honour those who have done most to promote the cause of good food”.

Finalists will be judged over the next couple of months and winners revealed at a ceremony in June.

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