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Hands Free Farm preparing for first crop drilling

Posted 12 November

“We were working in a perfect hectare, which was flat and fenced off, which is not representative of the fields our farmers are working in every day. They have to tackle telegraph poles, hills, ditches and public footpaths. The fields in our new 35-hectare farm will also provide us with these challenges. But like any farmer we are beholden to the bad weather."

ISEKI tractor drilling during a test of the system

A recent test of the Hands Free Farm drill

The Hands Free Farm (HFF) is approaching the drilling of its first crop at the 35 hectare farm site on the Harper Adams University campus.

The HFF follows on from the Hands Free Hectare (HFHa) that has been running at the university, in conjunction with Precision Decisions (now a Mag of Ag company), since October 2016. The small team behind the project aimed to be the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop remotely, without operators on the seats or agronomists in the field. They successfully harvested their first crop, 4.5 tonnes of spring barley, in September 2017 and 6 tonnes of winter wheat a year later.

In May of this year, it was announced that the team would be returning for a further three years and scaling-up to a 35-hectare farm. They are to grow winter wheat (which is due to be drilled imminently), winter beans and spring barley, which are planned to be planted in March. New partners have also come on board in the shape of FarmScanAG UK and the Agri-Epi Centre.

Mechatronics Senior Graduate Researcher, Mike Gutteridge said: "Since we announced the farm project, the time has gone very quickly and now drilling is just around the corner. We've had a lot to keep us busy, including getting our second ISEKI tractor that we used on the Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) project up to the correct specifications.

"We've recently taken delivery of a new drill from Simtech. It's great to see their continued support for the HFF following their help with the HFHa. We've installed the variable rate controller and tested it on the original HFHa site so all we need now are the right field conditions.”

Senior Agricultural Engineering Lecturer Kit Franklin said: "With the HFHa we had the aim of sparking conversation about the speed automation was happening within agriculture. We achieved that, but along the way, we had many conversations asking us how the technology will work within the field.

“We were working in a perfect hectare, which was flat and fenced off, which is not representative of the fields our farmers are working in every day. They have to tackle telegraph poles, hills, ditches and public footpaths. The fields in our new 35-hectare farm will also provide us with these challenges. But like any farmer we are beholden to the bad weather."

Martin Abell from Precision Decisions said: "This is our chance to really test the solutions we develop as a consortium and see what their combined capabilities really are, and where the limitations may be. We’ve known that individual parts of technology required for automation have existed for some time but we’re now seeing autonomous systems coming onto the open market. However, we don't totally understand yet how they will be used in day-to-day life by the farmers. We have a number of ideas, so it'll be great to be able to start testing them."

Jonathan Gill, Mechatronics Engineer at Harper Adams said: "This is a three year long project, so we're not going to have all of the answers straight away. We expect teething problems, and it might take us the whole three years to get to a point where the machines can work fully autonomously in the fields without human interaction. We always say, if it was easy, it would have been done before, but we completed a world's first with the HFHa. We're ready to keep improving and sharing our journey, and keep everyone updated using social media."

Commenting on the next exciting stage of the project, Callum Chalmers, Business Development Manager at Farmscan AG UK, said: “We're looking forward to the reveal of how the tractor performs and the results of the upcoming drilling season. This will be the first time demonstrating the software autonomously steering the tractor and controlling the drill remotely in a real field application, so the team are ready to get started.

 "Autonomous farming is an early area of development thriving off new ideas and concepts that push the limits of what is currently available and accessible for farmers in the market. Simtech have been great partners for the project and have designed a new drill that is ready for an electronic drive system so that we can use variable rate control.

"With three years to innovate and set the tone of what is possible in autonomous farming, we are looking at an excellent foundation for the future."

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