The world’s first farm operated without a driver in the seat or agronomists on the ground
Agri-EPI Centre has joined Precision Decisions, Harper Adams University, and FarmScan AG to create the world’s first fully automated farm.
The Hands Free Farm project launched in May 2019 following the end of the award-winning Hands Free Hectare feasibility study, which was the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop without a driver in the seat or agronomists on the ground.
After receiving funding from Innovate UK, the Hands Free Farm, which is based at the university’s campus in Shropshire, will extend to 35 hectares and develop a fleet of autonomous small vehicles which can be operated from the farm office, ready for commercialisation.
Some research shows that wheat yields in the UK over the last two decades have plateaued and one suggested reason is compacted soil. Most farms use large and heavy conventional machines, which compress the soil and make the soil less productive.
The main objective of this project was to prove the capability and ability of the automated farming systems in turn reducing the levels of soil compaction and aiding the application of precision farming. The Hands Free Farm also aims to offer a good financial incentive by increasing yields and reducing costs through better application of products and more efficient vehicle use
When starting the Hands Free Farm the aim was to grow three crops of winter wheat, winter beans and spring barley, and improve the machinery’s accuracy and field coverage, ultimately leading to a more competitive yield.
Throughout the project, Agri-EPI Centre will provide the Hands Free Farm team with development space and project management support at our Midlands Agri-Tech Innovation Hub.
Moving away from the perfect hectare of the Hands Free Hectare project, to the irregular fields of real world farming, the Hands Free Farm uses up to three small tractors, including Hands Free Hectare’s original ISEKI tractor. The tractors used for the project are equivalent in size to those commonly used 50-60 years ago, which is 75% smaller than modern tractors, and harvesters that are 2m wide instead of 10+m.
Aside from the partnership funded by Innovate UK, the Hands Free Farm has strong industrial support from various companies generously giving seeds and fertilisers as well as technology components.
When the project started, the original plan for year one was to drill two winter crops and a spring crop across the Hands Free Farm’s five fields. However, due to the poor weather and floods the UK experienced last winter, the winter drilling was postponed in the hope that it could all be done in spring.
Her Royal Highness Princess Anne was due to visit the project on March 27th when the team planned to start drilling. However on March 23, the lockdown of the United Kingdom was announced so the team continued to work on the project from their individual homes, enabling them to be ready to drill cover crops when restrictions were relaxed.
This spring the Hands Free Farm team successfully drilled two of their fields with a cover crop, while abiding by social distancing guidance. Although drilling a cover crop wasn’t the original plan, nor even plan B or C, it should boost the fertility of the fields and help them be flatter and more forgiving for next year’s procedures.
This drilling confirmed the improvements that had been made to the system. The team will be able to analyse the drilling performance when the crop emerges, which will enable them to improve the mapping ahead of working on combinable crops next year.
There are also plans to add more tractors and harvesters to the farm to operate across all five fields of the Hands Free Farm. These machines will then need to be developed so they can navigate the adjoining fields autonomously. The goal is to complete the world’s first real autonomous harvest where multiple harvesters and tractors work as a combined system.
Following the harvest, the team will analyse the results and use the data to add improvements to the new harvest. Some aspects of the project will be replicated on a new farm near York where Hands Free Farm’s first on-farm test user will showcase how a real-world farmer would use the technology.
This project will advance the agricultural industry beyond its already technical levels of today. Developing those involved into more technological roles such as: farm technicians attracting skilful personnel to the industry and making agriculture a more attractive career choice to a wider audience.
In addition, it’ll improve the current ways of working. With traditional methods, farmers have to work 14-16 hours per day during busy periods to profit. However, once autonomous farming is commercialised, farmers can reduce the amount of time they spend in the field which will help significantly improve mental health by providing a healthy work/life balance.
The Hands Free Farm project started 01/05/2019 and is meant to finish on 30/04/2022, however, weather conditions and COVID-19 may cause a delay.