Growing a crop without humans

World's first arable crop grown with autonomous vehicles


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Agricultural engineer Kit Franklin, who is leading the team being the Hands Free Hectare project, with the automated tractor that is doing all the work.

Agricultural engineer Kit Franklin, who is leading the team being the Hands Free Hectare project, with the automated tractor that is doing all the work.

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The world's first arable crop grown with autonomous vehicles will be harvested in August. Will we see this in Australia?

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The harvest of a hectare of spring barley in a small village in the west midlands of England next month will go down in international farming history.

It will herald the end of an ambitious project which has grown, tended and harvested the world’s first arable crop using autonomous vehicles. 

The Hands Free Hectare is the brainchild of Kit Franklin, a lecturer in agricultural engineering at Harper Adams University, Shrophshire, England, and his team.

The project started in October last year and mid-way through, Mr Frankin believes its been a success.

“We are trying to work towards a system where we replace large machines that are getting bigger and causing issues with compaction of our soils and not very precise,” Mr Franklin said at his display at Cereals 2017, the United Kingdom’s largest field day.

“The dream is to farm with many smaller tractors but the problem is we don’t have enough drivers so the answer is to turn them into autonomous systems.”

Once completed in October, the project will have grown, drilled, fertilised, sprayed and harvested a crop, using agricultural robots.

“We’ve done it on a tight budget and we have implemented existing technology,” Mr Franklin explained.

“There are two ways to make an agricultural robot – you can start from scratch and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing infrastructure or you can use what we have done, and that is an integration guy.

“We have a tractor off the shelf with hydro transmission. We have got a drone auto pilot, essentially a brain, and use a software package.

“The hardware on the tractor including safety systems, wifi connectivity and radio control comes to about $10,000.

“We drilled our crop in April, rolled it, went back through twice and have since sprayed for fungicides and growth regulator.

“So far we are mid project and we have never gone in the field.”

To make it more challenging, the project’s agronomist has also worked remotely, using drone images and a scout (robotic platform) which collects data.

The crop is due to be harvested in August and the team is working on adapting a combine harvester for the final stage.

“As far as I am concerned, it’s a success,” Mr Franklin said.

“The day we drilled the crop is the day I said we have not failed.

“At that point we had done something in this country that had never been done.

“If we do the full cropping cycle we have done something that has never been done in the world. It will be a world wide first to grow a full cropping cycle.”

Mr Franklin said the project had been well supported by the agricultural industry but received opposition from outside the industry.

“The wider community is not so supportive because they instantly think you are putting people out of jobs and things are going to be dangerous,” Mr Franklin said.

“It won’t put people out of a job, it changes the job.

“People were put out of farming 50 years ago, they have already lost their jobs.

“For those that are left – is it more efficient to have those people drive straight lines in a field or make agronomic decisions on the ground that are the best things for their farm.

“I want to inspire people to come into agriculture. For us agriculture is seen as flat caps and chewing straw. But there is a lot more than that. It’s science, it’s technology, it’s cutting edge.

“To make this system commercial we need more engineers and technologists.”

Mr Franklin said the autonomous vehicles would be most suited to horticulture “purely for the profit margins”.

Queensland Country Life journalist Lea Coghlan traveled to Cereals 2017 as a guest of Syngenta.

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