Hands Free Farm

Researchers at Harper Adams University set out to prove it was possible to manage the lifecycle of a crop autonomously.

Their Hands Free Hectare project has now been expanded to trial the concept on a larger scale; Senior Agricultural Engineering Lecturer Kit Franklin tells us more.

Growing up on a small family farm meant Kit Franklin always had an interest in agricultural machinery. But it was during his studies at Harper Adams University that he also discovered a passion for using technology to solve farming’s bigger problems. With labour shortages posing a continuing issue for many farms, Kit believes automation of some simpler tasks on farm could free up labour for other jobs.

“For us, it’s never been about developing technology which can completely replace people in farming,” says Kit, who is now Senior Lecturer in the University’s agricultural engineering department. “Instead, we want to fill labour gaps and allow farmers to use their workforce more effectively.

“At the start of the project, we questioned whether driving up and down in the tractor is the best use of a farmer’s time. If this was automated, would they have more time to focus on other tasks?”

Smaller, more precise technology

Kit and the team, including UAV expert Jonathan Gill and Precision Decisions, tested this theory during the initial Hands Free Hectare project. To keep things simple, they retrofitted the automation technology required to a small ISEKI tractor and Sampo combine. “We wanted the project to feel relevant to farmers and something they could imagine on their own farm,” explains Kit.

“We also wanted to show it’s possible to use smaller, lighter machinery. I believe farm machinery has become too large for the jobs we’re using them for, and this can have a negative impact on soil health due to compaction. During this project, we focused on smaller but more precise and capable technology.”

Using this technology, the team successfully completed two whole crop cycles, managing them autonomously. Building on this success, they launched the Hands Free Farm project.

Trialling the project on a challenging farm

Conscious the project needs to be applicable to UK farms, Hands Free Farm explores how three different combinable crops can be managed autonomously over 35 hectares. “We chose the farm carefully,” says Kit. “The fields vary in size from two to 15 hectares, with undulating land as well as trees and footpaths. We need to show this system can work on a larger scale and in more challenging fields, reflecting the UK farmed landscape.”

Having carried out their first wheat harvest on the 35-hectare platform, the researchers are really pleased with their progress. “To move from harvesting just one hectare to 35 is really exciting and shows how far we’ve come,” says Kit. “However, there is still plenty for us to work on. We’re planning to drill our spring crops with two tractors and drills working in the same field in a swarm. When it comes to harvest, we’re hoping to further develop autonomous unloading on the move and the interaction between multiple tractors and the combine harvester.”

Kit hopes the Hands Free system will be commercialised so it can be used on farms across the UK. In the meantime, he and his colleagues have their sights set on developing their concepts further: “The plan for us is to continue to explore the possible benefits and opportunities that automation brings for sustainable farming.”


drones used for farming

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