The Hands Free Hectare experimental robotic farm has completed its 1st autonomous harvest without any human labor, according to a LiveScience report.
The farm, which is run by researchers at Harper Adams University, harvested approximately 5 tons of spring barley. Every step in the process, including sowing, fertilizing, collecting samples and harvesting, was completed by autonomous vehicles on the farm, according to the report.
Researchers at the farm are hopeful that the autonomous technology could improve agricultural yields to help support the world’s growing population, LiveScience reports.
“In agriculture, nobody has really managed to solve the problem of autonomy,” Harper Adams Univ mechatronics researcher Jonathan Gill said. “Why is this not possible? If it’s possible in drone autopilots that are relatively cheap, how come there are companies out there that are charging exorbitant amounts of money to actually have a system that just follows a straight line.”
Researchers on the project purchased a number of small-size agricultural machines, including a tractor and combine, which were fitted with technology to allow autonomous use. The systems began as remote controlled, and later had all the actions necessary preprogrammed into their autopilot systems.
“The vehicles navigate entirely based on the GPS, and they are just essentially driving towards targets that we predetermined. At different GPS targets, there are different actions designed to be carried out,” industrial ag company Precision Decisions’ Martin Abell, who is collaborating on the project, told LiveScience.
Drones were fitted with special grippers to cut off samples and deliver them to researchers, keeping humans another step away from the field.
Researchers on the project said that similar robotic technology could lead to more precise fertilization and herbicide use, and improvements in soil quality, as large machines could be replaced with flocks of smaller robotic tractors and harvesters.
“At the moment, the machines used in agriculture are large, they operate quickly, they cover large areas of ground quickly, but it comes with inaccuracy. Small machines working with smaller working widths would provide am means to bring the resolution down. Instead of a 100-foot sprayer, you would have a 20-foot sprayer, and that’s just the beginning of making things smaller,” Abell told LiveScience.
The research team from Harper Adams plans to use the spring barley to make a limited batch of “hands-free” beer to be distributed to project partners as tokens of thanks, according to the report. Future projects will focus on improving precision of procedures and monitoring the effects on yields.