The Times Higher Education Technology Innovation Award.
Harper Adams University
With its Hands Free Hectare project, Harper Adams University has shown that it is possible to grow a barley crop without a single person being physically present in the field. It impressed the judges as a successful example of sustainability-enhancing “robotic agriculture” and a model of thriving university-business collaboration.
Supported by Innovate UK, researchers worked with Yorkshire business Precision Decisions to create an agricultural system that employed autonomous vehicles and drones along with a wind-based micro-energy installation to run on-site computing equipment.
The aim of Hands Free Hectare was to put robotic agriculture, long discussed, into practice.
The world-first project attracted interest from around the globe, including coverage in Nature and on BBC One’s The One Show . UK government officials took notice, and project leaders reported on the system at conferences as far afield as India. The project proposal was presented as part of researchers’ evidence to a House of Lords committee that autonomous vehicles could help to make crop production systems more efficient and sustainable.
The barley crop was harvested in late summer 2017 – and the grain has been made into an exclusive gin, with a beer to follow.
The judges said that Hands Free Hectare represented a “step change in agricultural practice that demonstrated how technology could be used to benefit humankind. It united established technical concepts for a successful pilot of robotic agriculture. The panel was impressed by the application and by its potential global impact.”