On the road to autonomous farm machinery

A world-first project run by UK-based Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions to drill, tend and harvest a crop without operators on the machine and agronomists in the field is proving a success.

Autonomous farm machinery created as part of the project entitled ‘Hands Free Hectare’ successfully tended and harvested the 2017 crop of spring barley, and at the time of writing, the 2018 crop of winter-sown wheat is being harvested.

Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for industry partner Precision Decisions says: “The first year of the project aimed to prove that there’s now no technological reason a field cannot be farmed without humans working the land directly and we did that with only using off-the-shelf technology and open source software.

“Now we are returning, thanks to funding from the AHDB (the UK levybody the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board) and the continued support from our industry sponsors, to try and increase the yield through increasing accuracy of our machinery and improved remote agronomy.”

The project is also seeking a more competitive yield.

However, the trial has not always gone smoothly, with the UK’s cold, wet autumn weather making drilling difficult in 2017.

Kit Franklin, agricultural engineering lecturer and the project lead says: “We had to abandon our first attempt to drill this season’s crop because it was raining quite heavily and the tractor was starting to slip around and lose its straight lines.”

As one of the reasons for doing the Hands-Free Hectare is to prove the machinery can go straighter, drilling was postponed until there was better weather.

“After ten days, we managed to come back out and complete the task. “When we drilled our spring barley, the tractor was a bit wavy and so were the drill lines.” Since then, work has focused on improving straightness.

Mr Franklin adds: “The tractor was still a bit wayward when turning back into the field, but once it’s on the line it was really straight with pass to pass cover greatly improved.

“It was brilliant to be part of the team that achieved this world first and to help lay down a marker in this sector.

“We have recently started seeing many commercial organisations coming out with their own autonomous agricultural solutions, showing that they are working on this. I think we could start seeing autonomous tractors and robots on farms any day.” Nevertheless, he points out, it is going to take new talent entering the industry to develop this technology.

“We hope this project helps to inspire people and show them the range of interesting and innovative jobs that are available now in agriculture.”

Soil structure is crucial to crop health, yield and the ability to withstand stresses such as those caused by drought. One of the agricultural industry’s main challenges is how to minimise damage.

Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, says: “There has been a focus in recent years on making farming more precise, but the larger machines that we are using are not compatible with this method of working. They’re also so heavy that they’re damaging farmers’ soils.

“If combines in the future were similar to the size of the combine we used in this project, which was a little Sampo combine with a header unit of only two meters, it would allow more precise yield maps to be created. They would also be much lighter machines.

“The weather can be an issue when farming, and provide only small windows for work to be completed; we’ve experienced it ourselves with this project.

“Just like anywhere in the UK, we’ve had to adjust our spraying times and harvest times due to the rain.

“This is part of the reason machines have been getting so much bigger over the years; we need to be able to complete work quickly.

“We believe the best solution is that in the future, farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles.

“These will be able to go out and work in the fields, allowing the farmer to use their time more effectively and economically instead of having to drive up and down the fields.”

Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for the industry lead, Precision Decisions, says: “This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field cannot be farmed without humans working the land directly now and we’ve done that.

“We set-out to identify the opportunities for farming and to prove that it’s possible to autonomously farm the land, and that’s been the great success of the project.

“We achieved this on an impressively low budget compared to other projects looking at creating autonomous farming vehicles. “The whole project cost less than £200k, funded by Precision Decisions and Innovate UK.

“We used machinery that was readily available for farmers to buy; open source technology; and an autopilot from a drone for the navigation system.” Mr Franklin, adds: "As a team, we believed there was now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. “This project gave us the opportunity to prove this and change current public perception."