A team from Harper Adams University and agricultural solutions company Precision Decisions successfully planted, tended and harvested a crop of barley using only autonomous machines, a project they called Hands Free Hectare.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now and we’ve done that,” Precision Decisions mechatronics researcher Martin Abell said in a press release. “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.”
Using drones, an autonomous tractor and an autonomous combine, the team drilled channels in the dirt to plant the seeds at specific depths and intervals; sprayed fungicides, herbicides and fertilizers; and harvested the crop.
The project used smaller machinery that is readily available for farmers to purchase, open source technology and drone autopilot for navigation to achieve the feat. The final cost was less than £200,000.
“There’s been a focus in recent years on making farming more precise, but the larger machines that we’re using are not compatible with this method of working. They’re also so heavy that their damaging farmers’ soils,” Harper Adams University researcher Jonathan Gill said in the statement. “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.”
He explained that while larger machines were created to reduce the amount of time needed to work, a team of small machines could accomplish the same work in the same amount of time.
“We believe the best solution is that in the future, farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles,” he said. “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.”
Before completing the project, the team predicted they would yield 5 tons of barley. But after the harvest, the team estimates they harvested closer to 4.5 tons. Now the researchers plan to make a Hands Free Hectare beer with the harvested barley and repeat the experiment with a winter crop.