Hands Free Hectare project scoops BBC Food and Farming Award
The Hands Free Hectare (HFH) project, run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, has won the Future Food Award at the BBC’s Food and Farming Awards ceremony which was held in Bristol on trhe 13th of July.
Last year the world-first project drilled, tended and harvested a crop of spring barley without operators on the machines or agronomists in the field. This year the team are growing a hectare of winter wheat, thanks to AHDB funding.
The project was demonstrated for the first time away from the university campus earlier that day at Cereals 2018, near Cambridge. The combine’s demonstration, held in the afternoon, was a great success and received a fantastic reaction from the audience.
Project Lead and Harper Adams Agricultural Engineering Lecturer Kit Franklin said: “It was a race to get from Cambridge to Bristol in time for the awards ceremony.
“We left Cereals on a high after our combine performed so well, but then the nerves started to kick-in while we were waiting for the winner of our category to be announced.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have won this award, especially with Alex James, who was helping to present the awards, commenting on how cool the project is.
“Who would have thought mine and Jonathan Gill’s idea, written originally on a post-it note, would get this far.”
Director of Precision Decisions, Clive Blacker said: “It’s fantastic that the project has earned this level of recognition. In the past year it has gained global publicity and the team have spoken at a number of conferences around the world, but for it to now be an award-winning project puts the cherry on the cake.
“It’s a true testament to the team’s work that has gone into this world-first project. It was amazing to have won the award after the successful demonstration at Cereals; the first away from the university.”
The project to farm a hectare of spring barley exclusively with autonomous vehicles at Harper Adams University completed successfully.
On why this project is important, Kit Franklin said”Automation is the future of farming. We’re currently at a stage where farm machinery has got to unsustainable sizes.”
The project to farm a hectare of spring barley exclusively with autonomous vehicles at Harper Adams University has been successfully completed and is being extended into a second year.
The ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project, saw a crop exclusively farmed by robots for the first time in the world, the team having already selected the key machinery required to reach their goal.
Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, said: “We’ve created a prototype and tested the automation system on an electric all-terrain vehicle in the field. We’ve proved that it can drive up and down in a consistent straight line; this is what we aimed to have achieved during our first task of planting the crop.”
The next step was to incorporate this system onto the Iseki tractor that was used by the team for drilling and spraying.
Jonathan added: “The project, and engineering as a whole, comes down to specifications and this is definitely true with this project. The requirements of the entire system need to account for the crop row spacing, even the shape of the field, to coordinate with the tractor and machinery available.”
Martin Abell, from Precision Decisions, the project’s industry partner, said: “The selection process has been very important and time consuming.”
“The drill that we used is a vineyard drill which is normally used to add green manure (cover crops) between vines to help the soil retain nutrients. The coulters and seed metering mechanism are identical to those used on conventional versions of the drill and so it suits our application perfectly.”
“The spray system that we’ve selected is not only appropriate for the tractor, giving sufficient capacity to cover the area, but also works with common agricultural practices. ”
“We used a conventional sprayer controller, the same system that can be bought by a farmer. This means the sprayer will be a self-contained unit, looking after itself while the tractor navigates the hectare.”
“We’ve also turned our attention to safety. It is incredibly important that we have safety systems enabled in the unlikely situation that something goes wrong. The machines were not radio-controlled but act autonomously. We’ve found laser scanners which will monitor the front of the tractor and stop it should anything be too close.
“It’s been a challenge to find systems that work with our vehicles in conditions that robots aren’t normally put in. For example, actuators supplied by Linak, help to control the transmission and other functions in tough environments.”
The team created a mission control. This provided a platform to see the field in real-time and supplement feedback from the robots whilst working.
Due to the popularity of the project, the engineering department helped the project by providing a camera that was fixed to the outside of mission control. Here they provided a ‘live-stream’ of important events in the field.
Jonathan commented: “We’ve had more in-kind sponsors join the project since we started They are very excited to be a part of this project and have been incredibly generous. We’re very thankful for their help.”
The project’s main partner is Precision Decisions Ltd. Clive Blacker, managing director and Hands Free Hectare project lead said: ?The opportunity to convert our current experience of autosteer and precision agronomy solutions and embark on an autonomous solution is very exciting.
“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.”
“What we learn from this experience is fundamental in allowing us to fulfil the needs of tomorrow`s farmer, to fully embrace the digital revolution we face today.”