Hands-Free Hectare Project: Humans not needed for crop farming

Date & Time: 2018-05-15 22:54:20

A WORLD-FIRST project in the West Midlands of England has opened the door to the future face of farming — and Australia has been given the inside story. The “Hands-Free Hectare Project” (HFHa), based in Shropshire, set out to demonstrate that a crop could be successfully prepared, sown, grown and harvested without a human being ever setting foot in the field. Everything was to be done by machine autonomously – and it worked. The full account of how the project unfolded was delivered by one of its key architects, Martin Abell, who was flown to Australia earlier this year to act as keynote speaker at a Grains Research and Development Corporation Grains Research Update in Perth. Mr Abell’s itinerary, organised by GRDC, quickly grew to include other speaking engagements and his visit stretched out to three weeks. He also gave a presentation at the GRDC Grains Research Update in Adelaide. “I’m enjoying meeting different farmers and seeing a completely different way of farming with distinctive problems,” he told Crop Gear. “It turns out I now have a very busy itinerary, going to four states, speaking at seven events and visiting Sydney University.” Mr Abell, 25, is a mechatronics research engineer for York-based farming services company Precision Decisions, having joined after graduating from Shropshire’s Harper Adams University with a five-year master’s degree in agricultural engineering. A farmer’s son from a small arable enterprise in North Yorkshire, he had previously completed a year’s internship with a strip seeding manufacturer and worked in a grain storage facility during his years as a student. As an undergraduate, he focused his thesis on the effects of tillage and traffic systems on soil, later joining a group project developing an autonomous sprayer demonstration unit for the university. “Harper Adams is a centre for precision farming in the UK and the professors there are always talking about automation as the destiny of agriculture, but what they’re referring to is lots of tiny robots in swarms of hundreds,” Mr Abell said. “That seems too futuristic, so the HFHa project is all about showing how automation can happen now using current technologies and smaller versions of tractors perhaps commonly seen 60 years ago. “Everything needed to make them autonomous is available today. “We started with a 40hp (29kW) Iseki tractor, a 1.5m seeder with 6m boom sprayer and a 25-year-old Sampo combine harvester with 2m header attachment. “We believe small machines have their benefits – they’re kinder on the soil and more precise. “The team’s first crop was one hectare of spring barley, sown at the university in March 2017, then, in November last year, we planted a winter wheat. “We should be able to harvest that around the beginning of August this year.” The Hands-Free project, run jointly by the university and Precision Decisions as industry partner, aimed to be the first in the world to farm a crop exclusively with robots and drones. he team, comprising Mr Abell in a full-time role and two others part-time, are all convinced that automation is the future of farming and that modern farm machinery had reached unsustainable sizes. Their premise was that, with these larger machines, certain issues were emerging, including reduced soil health through compaction, hindered plant growth and reduced application and measuring resolution – critical for precision farming – as sprayer and harvesting widths increased. They believed automation would facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines could enter the field, minimise compaction, enhance high-resolution precision farming and potentially reduce inputs. “Farmers will be able to concentrate on agronomic and business decisions while overseeing and managing a number of smaller automated machines, instead of sitting in a large tractor with 300-plus horsepower driving up and down a field,” Mr Abell said. The team created a prototype and tested the automation system on an electric all-terrain vehicle in the field. Once it was proven that the ATV could drive up and down in a consistent straight line, the next step was to incorporate the system into the Iseki tractor that was to be employed for drilling and spraying. “When we planned our first crop, the tractor was able to navigate using an autopilot system for drones,” Mr Abell said. “That allowed it to follow a pre-determined path in the field. It ran entirely on GPS and followed the requested route making its way between waypoints. “Those waypoints were digital GPS markers created using our software that  we positioned at the ends of the field for the tractor to locate – like a highly advanced version of dot-to-dot. “The waypoints for the drilling also incorporated lifting and lowering signals that picked the drill up at one end and placed it back down once it had turned around. “The SimTech Aitchison drill we used is normally for drilling in-between the vines of vineyards to plant cover crops used as green manures to help fertilise the vines naturally. “The coulters and seed metering mechanism were identical to those used on conventional versions of the drill and so it suited our application perfectly.” The six hour-long drilling operation came after a pre-seeding herbicide application, which the tractor also completed successfully using a GPS-controlled precision sprayer developed specifically for the project. “The spray system we selected was not only appropriate for the tractor, giving sufficient capacity to cover the area, but also worked with common agricultural practices,” Mr Abell said. “Our plan was to use a conventional sprayer controller, the same system that could be bought by a farmer. This meant the sprayer would be a self-contained unit, looking after itself while the tractor navigated the one-hectare field. “We also turned our attention to safety. It’s incredibly important that we have safety systems enabled in the unlikely situation that something goes wrong. “The machines would not be radio-controlled, but act autonomously, so we found laser scanners which would monitor the front of the tractor and stop it should anything be too close.” A further consideration was the need to create a mission control, providing a platform to see the field in real-time and supplement feedback from the robots while they were working. Weather is always an issue when farming and the project team had to adjust its planned spraying and harvest times because of rain. Throughout the year, the team had hoped for a yield of five tonnes of spring barley, but the result at harvest was 4.5 tonnes – destined to end up as “Hands-Free Hectare beer”! “The project proved automated agriculture is possible and shows there are no technological reasons why automated cereal farming should not take place commercially,” Mr Abell said. The team’s second crop – one hectare of winter wheat – was sown late last year. “The first year aimed to prove there’s now no technological reason a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly and we did that with only using off-the-shelf technology and open source software,” he said. “Now we’ve returned, thanks to fresh funding and continued support from our industry sponsors, to try to increase the yield through increasing accuracy of our machinery and improved remote agronomy.” Unfortunately, the group didn’t enjoy the easiest of starts, forced to abandon their first attempt to drill this season’s crop when heavy rains were causing the tractor to slip around and lose its straight lines. However, after 10 days of dreary weather, they managed to complete the task. “We set out to identify the opportunities for farming and to prove it’s possible to autonomously farm the land – and that’s been the great success of the project,” Mr Abell said. “We achieved this on an impressively low budget compared with other projects looking at creating autonomous farming vehicles. The whole effort cost less than £200,000 (about $356,000), funded by Precision Decisions and Innovate UK. “We used machinery that is readily available for farmers to buy, open source technology and an autopilot from a drone for the navigation system. “Global media interest has been phenomenal. Other research places around the world are making autonomous vehicles, but don’t farm with them. “Ultimately, we’d like to set up a hands-free farm – maybe 20ha with four paddocks – but develop it to see how it could work with three or four different crops. We want to prove that automated agriculture is now possible – it’s not a dream for the distant future. “One of our objectives was to utilise machinery and technologies that are available and affordable, not bespoke and expensive. “It is legislation that remains the primary barrier to widespread adoption of automated machines within all technological sectors – including agriculture.”