Field to be farmed exclusively by robots | Precision Decisions

In a world-first, Harper Adams University, led by Precision Decisions, are growing and harvesting a hectare of cereal crops; all without stepping a foot into the field.

A team of engineers are attempting “a world first” by using robots to grow and harvest a hectare of crops without stepping foot into the field.

Farming experts at North Yorkshire-based Precision Decisions are leading the ‘Hands Free Hectare’ scheme, supporting Harper Adams University staff in Shropshire to drill a spring cereal crop in March using “autonomous farming machinery”.

A technological revolution is already underway in farming. Increasingly, farmers use GPS guided tractors to spray crops efficiently and robotic milking parlours to relieve the labour burden, but this new project is arguably the most ambitious yet.

Kit Franklin, a researcher at Harper Adams, said: “We believe there is now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. This project gives us the opportunity to prove this. Previously, people have automised sections of agricultural systems, but funding and interest generally only goes towards one single area. We’re hoping to string everything together to create one whole system, which will allow us to farm our hectare of cereal crop from establishment to harvest, without having to go into the field.”

The project coincides with a call from the National Farmers’ Union for a stronger focus on crop research after disappointing yields this harvest.

Automation is the future, according to Mr Franklin, who explained: “Agricultural machines have been getting bigger increasing work rates… with these larger machines, we are seeing a number of issues, including reduced soil health through compaction which hinders plant growth. Automation will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction. These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.”

Clive Blacker, managing director of Precision Decisions, based in Shipton by Beningbrough, York, added: “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.”