Robots will grow and harvest a hectare of cereal crops in Shropshire without a single human stepping foot in the field, in what engineers say is a ‘world first’ project.
‘Hands Free Hectare’ has recently got under way, with the team, led by farming company Precision Decisions and supported by engineers from Harper Adams University, to start developing their first autonomous farming machinery ready for drilling a spring crop in March 2017.
Kit Franklin, one of the researchers, said that the project gives them the opportunity to prove there are no technological barriers to automated field agriculture and to change current public perception.
Franklin said: “Previously, people have automised sections of agricultural systems, but funding and interest generally only goes towards one single area. We’re hoping to string everything together to create one whole system, which will allow us to farm our hectare of cereal crop from establishment to harvest, without having to go into the field.
“We are confident that we are going to be successful implementing current open source technology, but obviously there is an element of risk. This is the first time in the world that this has been done but pushing boundaries is what engineering research is about.”
The team will use small-scale machinery that is already available on the market and will adapt them in the university’s engineering labs ready for autonomous field work.
The guidance system will utilise adapted autopilots currently being utilised on drones combined with a high precision real-time kinematic global navigation satellite system.
The autonomous machines will be based around a commercial compact tractor commonly used in horticulture and the crop will be planted using a small scale seed drill. Agricultural chemicals and fertiliser will be applied via a small scale liquid boom sprayer and current plans are to use a small combine harvester imported from Asia that are commonly used for paddy field harvesting.
Franklin said that current farm machinery has got to “unsustainable sizes” due to increasing work rates, which has so far suited our farming industry due in part to the UK’s unpredictable climatic working windows and reduced rural staff availability. However, he added that larger machines reduce soil health through compaction which hinders plant growth, as well as “reduced application and measuring resolution, which is “critical for precision farming, as sprayer and harvesting widths increase”.
“Automation will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction,” said Franklin. “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.
Tractor drivers would become a fleet manager and “agricultural analysts”, that look after a number of farming robots and monitoring the development of their crops.
Clive Blacker, managing director at Precision Decisions and Hands Free Hectare project lead, said: “Automation undoubtedly will become a large part of agriculture’s future. By working with Harper Adams, the leading global centre for agricultural robotic research, this allows us to understand the challenges autonomous solutions bring and to develop new tools and services from this opportunity.”
Funding for the project is being provided through the Innovate UK.