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    Six years of autonomous agriculture - the Hands Free Farm team look back

    Posted 5 April 2023

    A tractor carrying out autonomous operations on the Hands Free Farm site

    The new strip cropping trial follows six years of Hands Free Farming at Harper Adams, where the team behind the Farm and its predecessor, the Hands Free Hectare, have marked a series of successes. 

    Their work on the Hands Free Hectare site built the team’s name and profile in both media and industry. 

    Then, in May 2019, the team secured fresh funding from Innovate UK. 

    Working with partners Farmscan AG UK, the Agri-EPI Centre and Precision Decisions, they moved to the 35-hectare Hands Free Farm site, scaling up their work – and the obstacles their machines faced.

    Over three years, they tested, trialled and developed their machines – with fresh challenges, both expected and unexpected. 

    As they began technical preparations for their first drilling operation on the Farm in November 2019, Kit said: "With the Hands Free Hectare, 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 about 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." 

    Weather did indeed affect the project, and plans for winter drilling were put on hold until the following spring – which, although they did not know it at the time, would give the team a challenge of an entirely different kind – the coronavirus pandemic. 

    Having resolved to carry out spring sowing, the team had initially planned to start their on-site work before the end of March – when Harper Adams Chancellor, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, was due to visit the site. 

    However, just before the work was to get underway, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a UK-wide lockdown, as part of measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19.  

    Undeterred, the team continued to plan from their homes, ensuring they were ready to drill when restrictions were relaxed – with on-site work completed in late May. 

    The team’s plans moved ahead – albeit delayed – and shortly after their harvest in September 2020, the visit initially planned by Her Royal Highness took place as a private event. 

    Her Royal Highness spoke with the team to discuss their work and how they had adapted during the pandemic whilst the Farm’s autonomous tractor was drilling its first field of winter wheat for harvest in 2021. 

    Later that year, the Hands Free Farm team were among those who took part in an event aimed at developing a Code of Practice for autonomous machinery. 

    The online event was organised by the Global Institute for Agri-Tech Economics (GIATE) at Harper Adams alongside the Agri-EPI Centre, with the Hands Free Team sharing their insights. 

    Both Kit and?Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, the Elizabeth Creak Chair of Agri-Tech Economics and economist with the Hand Free Farm project, spoke at the event. 

    In April 2021, Kit was named winner of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers (IAgrE)’s President’s Award for his work driving forward the Hands Free Farm. 

    IAgrE said: “Kit’s ability to drive this project and then present the work to listeners at all levels, demonstrating understanding not only of the technologies involved, but of the challenges that application of these technologies face in the agricultural field situation, make him an exceptional ambassador for the Agricultural Engineering profession. 

    “To have achieved this during the early stages of his career make him a worthy recipient of this year’s President’s Award.” 

    That spring, the Hands Free team established 30 hectares of crops for the 2021 harvest on the Farm. This harvest – the first full harvest on the farm following the impact of restrictions in 2020 – was eventually broadcast to millions of viewers after the team’s work was profiled by BBC One’s Countryfile

    The farm’s work was the centrepiece of the 2021 Countryfile Harvest special, where the team explained to presenter, Steve Brown exactly what they were doing on the farm – and their hopes for how autonomous vehicles could transform the work farmers do. 

    The programme examined how the smaller equipment used on the farm – once automated – could be kinder to soil while still carrying out the necessary work to bring a harvest home. 

    By the time of the following year’s 2022 harvest, completed last September, there had been six years of Hands Free farming at Harper Adams overall – with the project gaining international interest from industry, politicians and the media. 

    Among those organisations who have visited or worked with the farm are the British Standards Institute, NFU Mutual, OFCOM, and the Health and Safety Executive. 

    They had spoken about their work at conferences across the world, shown it to leading politicians and industry figures, and even taken part in an in-depth feature in Bloomberg Magazine.

    At an industry event for invited guests shortly after harvest, Kit unveiled the strip cropping plan, saying: “We have a unique opportunity to do more and keep learning. 

    “When we look at the range of equipment we have here at the Hands Free Farm, we have small equipment by modern standards, but with this sort of equipment and the precision of our autonomous system, it opens the Harper Adams University future farm – right here, right now – to start an autonomous strip crop field.” 

    That work is now underway – setting in motion the next chapter for the Hands Free team. 

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