Posted 30 June 2019
In October 2016, Harper Adams University engineering staff, along with precision farming specialist Precision Decisions Ltd, set out to be the first in the world to attempt to grow and harvest a hectare of cereal crops without operators on the machines nor agronomists in the field.
The project was entitled the ‘Hands Free Hectare’ (HFHa) and saw the team creating autonomous machines out of agricultural vehicles bought off the general market and fitting them with an autopilot system intended for flying drones before programming them with open source software. The budget of less that £200,000 was funded by Precision Decisions and Innovate UK.
Kit Franklin, a senior agricultural engineering lecturer from Harper Adams said: “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, we are seeing a number of issues, including reduced soil health through compaction which hinders plant growth, along with reduced application and measuring resolution, which are critical for precision farming, as sprayer and harvesting widths increase.”
Jonathan Gill, mechatronics and UAS researcher for Harper Adams said: “Automation is the future of farming and it will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction. These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants, can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.”
The team is also adamant that they don’t envisage this technology will put people out of work within the combinable crops sector¬. Kit added: “It’s about changing the job farmers do. 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 analyst, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops. They will also be able to concentrate on agronomic and business decisions.”
Clive Blacker, Precision Decisions’ (now a Map of Ag company) founder said: “The opportunity to convert our experience of autosteer and precision agronomy solutions and embark on an autonomous solution was very exciting. By working with Harper Adams, we can understand the challenges autonomous solutions bring and develop new tools and services from this opportunity.”
The team successfully got over their first major hurdle of the project, drilling the hectare site on the Harper Adams campus with their self-driving tractor, in April 2017.
Prior to harvest, and throughout the growing process, the team had to collect crop and soil samples so they could be inspected by agronomist Kieran Walsh who would usually work with a more hands-on approach. These samples were collected by a robot scout which would drive out into the field to set points and scoop up the samples. They also used a drone with a modified dog poo scooper to pluck ears from the crop.
The team successfully harvested their crop in September 2017 with their 25+ year-old trials combine, which is much smaller than a contemporary machine. They managed to bring in 4.5 tonnes of spring barley which they’d planned to turn into beer, but it’d take another year and a half before the product was completed. In the meantime, a Hands Free Hectare gin was created.
Over the course of the first year of the project, media interest grew. The team went from being interviewed by the local and specialist farming press, to hosting journalists from national and international outlets. The project’s publicity was featured in 85 countries around the world and was shared by the University’s shows and events teams at agricultural fairs up and down the country. This led to the project being presented with a Highly Commended Award from HEIST.
In November 2017, the HFHa returned for a second year, thanks to receiving funding from the AHDB, to compete another full cropping cycle with winter wheat.
This time the team focused on improving the accuracy of their machinery, and therefore increase the yield at harvest, which included the need to therefore start moving away from the open source software they relied upon in the first year. But the project didn’t have the easiest of starts. The team had to abandon their first attempt to drill the crop because it was raining heavily, and the tractor was starting to slip around and lose its straight lines; caught on camera by a Sky TV crew! Falling into the team’s warts and all approach to outreach.
Nine months later, the HFHa team successfully harvested their second crop using their autonomous combine harvester again and achieved unloading on the move for the first time with their ISEKI tractor.
Drilling misses fell from 2.82 per cent in the first year of the project to 0.35 percent in the second year, which helped the team achieve a respectable overall yield of 6.5 tonnes, despite the late drilling and busy schedules.
During the second year of the project, the team were presented with a number of awards, following the success of the first year. These included the BBC Food and Farming Awards Future Food Award, THE Award for Technological Innovation of the Year, and the IAgrE Team Achievement Award.
A number of VIPs also visited the hectare site on the university campus, these included: the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove; Jeremy Corbyn while he was the leader of the Labour Party; and Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive Designate of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Positive attention of the project, created by the publicity and VIP visits, helped lead to the project being noted as a case study in a DEFRA Green Paper.
The team also attended a ceremony at Buckingham Palace where Harper Adams University was presented with a Queen’s Anniversary Prize, awarded in recognition of the university’s pioneering work in developing agricultural technologies, and associated alternative farming methods, to deliver global food security.
For the third year of the project, the team focused on tackling a number of technological challenges that they had encountered but hadn’t have a chance to overcome due to the previous tight deadlines. They also took on new and exciting challenges, which included working on their tractor so that it would drive itself from the shed to the field. This was called the Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) project and saw Farmscan AG UK and the Agri-EPI Centre come on board as partners.
In May 2019, the HFHa team made a big announcement; they were returning again, but this time to run a Hands Free Farm. Behind the project is more funding from Innovate UK, and Farmscan AG UK and the Agri-EPI Centre have continued to be partners with Harper Adams and Precision Decisions.
Martin Abell, Operations Manager for Precision Decisions, said: “With the farm, we’re looking to solve problems like fleet management and swarm vehicle logistics and navigation. 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 public pathways to manage.
“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.”
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 would like to thank the following in kind sponsors:
Pepper + Fuchs
Cotswolds Grass Seeds Direct
Ifor Williams Trailers