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Hands Free Hectare broadens out to 35-hectare farm

Posted 22 May

“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."

Members of the team from Harper Adams University: Mike Gutteridge, Jonathan Gill, Kit Franklin

The Hands Free Hectare (HFHa), a project run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, a Map of Ag company, has received funding from Innovate UK to create a Hands Free Farm.

HFHa started in 2016 with the aim to be the first in the world to grow, tend and harvest a crop without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. The project has been taken through two successful cropping cycles, and won a number of awards; including the prestigious BBC Food and Farming Future Food Award.

The new Hands Free Farm will be a three-year-long project, run in partnership between Harper Adams and Precision Decisions, along with a new partner; the UK division of Australian precision agriculture specialist Farmscan AG.

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

Jonathan Gill, Mechatronics Researcher at the university said: “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.

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

Martin Abell, Mechatronics Engineer for Precision Decisions, said: “With the farm, we’re looking to solve problems like fleet management and swarm 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.

“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.

“Precision Decisions will be handling vehicle and data management through our MiFarm platform.”

Kit Franklin, Senior Agricultural Engineering Lecturer, said: “We want the farm to become a testbed for agricultural innovation. Once the farm’s established, we’ll be encouraging companies to come and test and evaluate their technologies.

“It’s also great that the project will remain on the university campus, so that students will be able to learn from it, watch our progress and see how dynamic and innovative the agricultural engineering industry is.”

Additional elements to the project include: Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, the Elizabeth Creak Chair of Agri-Tech Economics at Harper Adams, conducting an economic outputs study in relation to the project; and in the final year of the project, alongside being run at the university, the system will be evaluated by partner farmer David Blacker.

Callum Chalmers, Business Development Manager for Farmscan AG said: “We’re hoping to expand on the great foundations the HFHa laid by integrating our existing industry proven technology with a developing autonomous platform to provide precision control across the farm.

“Our goal is to have multiple small unmanned vehicles working together seamlessly in the same fields, all remotely monitored and completing all the tasks you would expect in a commercial farm.

“Navigating roads and pathways between fields is an exciting new challenge; we want to face real world conditions, where fields aren’t often in one place and it’s a necessity to travel between them.”

The team are supported by the same consortium of in-kind sponsors as HFHa along with welcoming a number of new organisations.

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