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Chancellor, The Princess Royal, makes private visit to the Hands Free Farm

Posted 29 September

“It was our pleasure to welcome back Her Royal Highness, who has always taken a keen interest in our work to develop sustainable farming methods and technologies. Working with the restrictions required to keep everybody safe, we were able to showcase our work on autonomous farming systems in the field and introduce the Chancellor to key team members and a small number of our students."

Man and woman in a field watching a tractor

HRH The Princess Royal and Kit Franklin at Harper Adams Hands Free Farm

Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, Chancellor of Harper Adams University, has made a private visit to the Hands Free Farm project.

The Chancellor had been due to visit the project and attend a reception on campus in March, but the event was postponed. The University was delighted to be able to welcome Her Royal Highness on Monday and share progress of its world-leading applied research on autonomous farming.

Vice-Chancellor, Dr David Llewellyn, who hosted the visit alongside HM Lord-Lieutenant of Shropshire, Mrs Anna Turner JP, said:  “It was our pleasure to welcome back Her Royal Highness, who has always taken a keen interest in our work to develop sustainable farming methods and technologies. Working with the restrictions required to keep everybody safe, we were able to showcase our work on autonomous farming systems in the field and introduce the Chancellor to key team members and a small number of our students.”

Kit Franklin, Hands Free Project Lead, added: “It was unfortunate that we could not hold the bigger reception we had planned back in March with all our Hands Free sponsors and supporters. But we were most grateful that the partners of the research consortium were able to meet Her Royal Highness at this smaller-scale visit and to discuss the technology whilst the autonomous tractor was drilling our first field of winter wheat for harvest 2021. We were able to explain the aims of the work as well as how we had to adapted the project plan to make the most of the resources and activities available to us during the period of restrictions.”

In 2017, the Hands Free Hectare team achieved a world-first, using automated machines to grow an arable crop remotely, without operators in the driving seats or agronomists in the field.

There has been a focus in recent years on making farming more precise, but the larger machines the sector has become accustomed to are not always compatible with this method of working and the mass of these larger machines has also been shown to damage soil. Therefore the university has been investigating the use of fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles that should have less impact on the land whilst enabling farmers to use their time more efficiently.

After taking the Hectare through two successful cropping cycles, to national and international acclaim, the project attracted funding and partnerships to broaden out to a 35-hectare farm at Harper Adams.

The project aims to solve problems such as fleet management and swarm vehicle logistics and navigation, in a real-world environment. The initial hectare was a neat rectangle, but the new farm includes irregular field shapes, obstacles, undulating land and public rights of way.

During her visit, the Chancellor learned how operations had adapted, first to the bad weather of last winter and then to the restrictions of the global pandemic.

The original plan for year one had been to drill two winter crops and a spring crop across its five fields. However, due to the poor winter weather experienced by the UK, winter drilling was postponed in the hope that it would all be accomplished in spring.

These hopes were set back with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing. However, the team was not deterred. They continued to work on the project from their individual homes, enabling them to be ready to drill when restrictions were relaxed.

They have now successfully drilled two of their fields with a cover crop, while abiding by social distancing guidance. The cover established well before being flail topped and sprayed autonomously to prepare the field ready for drilling winter crops for harvest 2021.

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