Growing a crop without a single person entering the field sounds like something out of a science fiction film, but one researcher has proved it is not only possible using existing technology – it can also be done cheaply.

An army of people, including sprayer operators and agronomists, would typically enter a field on numerous occasions over a cropping cycle to spray crops, monitor for signs of disease and pests, as well as harvest. Autonomous systems are available, but no one has used them to actually grow a field crop.

To prove that it is possible, a group of researchers, led by Kit Franklin, set out to do the seemingly impossible – and achieve a world first. He outlines the challenges as well as what the future may hold for farmers.

When did you first get the idea for Hands Free Hectare?

“There was no lightbulb moment. Fellow researcher Jonathan Gill and I had been working closely together for 6 months on the concept, as we knew it was technically possible. Although robotic tractors had been developed, no one had managed to get them to actually perform the various field operations before. We were determined to show it could be done.

We were also aware there were other researchers worldwide who were going to have a go. That gave us the push we needed and provided the urgency – there are no prizes for second place in a world-first challenge!

It wouldn’t have happened without the help of Precision Decisions and Clive Blacker; they gave us commercial, technical and moral support at every stage.”

Why did you do it?

“The use of smaller, more precise machines, which are lighter and able to work in a wide range of conditions without damaging soils, is the way forward for farming. The Hands Free Hectare project gave us an opportunity to showcase the possibilities, explore the options and move the debate on to the next level.

Across the globe, the farming industry is being asked to produce food more sustainably. Robotics have a role in this, but they don’t have to be prohibitively expensive or too complex for the user. We really wanted to be able to communicate these messages to the wider industry.

A personal aim was to show that agriculture is exciting and innovative. It can be cutting edge and there are plenty of inspiring people to work with.”

What did you get out of the project?

“We weren’t prepared for the huge recognition the Hands Free Hectare team has received from around the world, although we did set out to try to make a noise.

Apart from generating headlines in more than 40 countries, we have increased our skills base significantly. That doesn’t just mean our technical knowledge of robotics, it also brings in media, marketing and project management skills, not to mention time/workload management.

The job satisfaction in getting the project to fruition was tremendous. We put in some long hours and had a few sleepless nights, but it all worked out. It’s important to point out that it was a real team effort.

The project has also given us job security. We are being approached every day by commercial organisations and lots of interest in collaborative ventures. The demands on us have increased enormously, but it’s a very exciting time.”

What were the greatest challenges?

“By far the greatest technical challenge was getting accuracy into the system. It’s no secret that we used open-source drone systems in the tractor, but they don’t have the accuracy we have gotten used to with auto guidance. Being 0.5m (20in) off-line doesn’t matter as much with drones as it does with tractors.

By the time we got to combining, we had managed to make the tweaks and changes required to improve accuracy. So in future we will repeat the combine guidance system on the tractor, to get this sorted.

Otherwise, the weather was a challenge, especially at harvest – but that’s something every farmer knows about.”

What would you do differently next time?

“We are very hopeful there will be a next time and have been very active in trying the raise the finances to continue. All being well, a hands-free autumn-drilled crop will be grown on the same site in 2017-18, providing we secure the funding and assistance required.

Otherwise, we will largely be looking to repeat what we did this year, with a few minor alterations to the technology.

Now that we have proved that automated field operations are possible, we will be looking at ways of driving the tractor from the yard to the field without anyone in the seat. Navigating farm tracks is the obvious next step, so that the whole operation is automated.

That may mean collaborating with partners that make vehicle vision systems. Again, we know it is possible, so we would like to make it happen.”

What were the key lessons for farmers from the Hands Free Hectare project?

“The main learnings are that the technology to do this is already available, can be very reliable and doesn’t have to cost what farmers are paying at the moment.

What we achieved with the project shows you don’t have to spend $13,300 on a guidance system – $2,600 is enough. So things are going to get easier and cheaper and there are plenty of market developments coming through that reflect this, some of which can be described as disruptive technologies.

We hope farmers will also find that automation and robotics become more accessible. Technology is often built up to be very complex and expensive, when it doesn’t have to be. Farmers really can use it to their advantage, providing they are prepared to give it a go. Don’t let anyone tell you it is out of your reach.”

Will in-field robots become a reality in the next 5 years?

“Definitely. There’s nothing to stop it from happening. Having said that, we’ve proved the technical barriers can be overcome. But there are still some legislative issues, and in the UK we mustn’t forget about health and safety. Another potential minefield is public perception.

In terms of timescales, the Japanese manufacturer Kubota has already held a preview and demonstration of the autonomous farm machinery it is developing. The company expects to have some of them on the market in 2018.

In India, Mahindra & Mahindra has developed a driverless tractor and has invested hugely in robotics. Things are moving at a rapid pace and these companies have committed to making their vision a reality. There’s no doubt in my mind that the race is on.”

What’s next for you?

“We have been very busy trying to secure funding. There are some exciting bigger projects that we would really like to collaborate on, as well as running the Hands Free Hectare again – only this time with a winter cereal crop.

I’ve already mentioned navigation to the field as an area of interest. Other things we are considering are full farm communication coverage, as we were really pushing the boundaries of wi-fi in the project.

When the tractor is moving, it is always in communication. Being able to beam everything up to a big network, for instance, would give us greater capability.

We are working in a fast-paced environment. There is money to be made by machinery manufacturers, so it’s great to be completely independent and have no commercial axe to grind. It means I can have some very interesting discussions with farmers and growers.”

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