Hands Free Hectare project scoops BBC Food and Farming Award
Martin Abell, Clive Blacker, Adreen Hart-Rule, Jonathan Gill and Kit Franklin with the BBC Food and Farming Future Food Award
The Hands Free Hectare (HFH) project, run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, has won the Future Food Award at the BBC’s Food and Farming Awards ceremony which was held in Bristol last night.
Last year the world-first project drilled, tended and harvested a crop of spring barley without operators on the machines or agronomists in the field. This year the team are growing a hectare of winter wheat, thanks to AHDB funding.
The project was demonstrated for the first time away from the university campus earlier that day at Cereals 2018, near Cambridge. The combine’s first demo, held in the morning, didn’t fully go to plan but the team worked hard to ensure it would be ready for the afternoon slot; which proved to be a success and received a fantastic reaction from the audience.
Project Lead and Harper Adams Agricultural Engineering Lecturer Kit Franklin said: “It was a race to get from Cambridge to Bristol in time for the awards ceremony.
“We left Cereals on a high after our combine performed so well, but then the nerves started to kick-in while we were waiting for the winner of our category to be announced.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have won this award, especially with Alex James, who was helping to present the awards, commenting on how cool the project is.
“Who would have thought mine and Jonathan Gill’s idea, written originally on a post-it note, would get this far.”
Director of Precision Decisions, Clive Blacker said: “It’s fantastic that the project has earned this level of recognition. In the past year it has gained global publicity and the team have spoken at a number of conferences around the world, but for it to now be an award-winning project puts the cherry on the cake.
“It’s a true testament to the team’s work that has gone into this world-first project. It was amazing to have won the award after the successful demonstration at Cereals; the first away from the university.”
Jonathan Gill, Mechatronics Researcher, added: “We want to say a huge thank you to all of our sponsors and supporters; without them, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve this.
“We can’t believe how many people this project has reached. Our original aim was to spark the conversation that there is no technological barrier to automated field agriculture and also highlight how smaller, lighter machines can help combat soil compaction issues and improve plant health. I think we’ve definitely achieved that.”
Joining Kit, Clive and Jonathan at the awards ceremony were Precision Decisions’ Martin Abell, Mechatronics Engineer for the project, and Harper Adams University PR & Communications Officer, Adreen Hart-Rule, who handled the PR for the project.
7 June 2018
It’s World Gin Day this Saturday, and what better way to celebrate than with the unveiling of the Hands Free Hectare Gin.
A 30-bottle batch of Merywen gin, flavoured with barley from the world’s first hands-free crop, has been produced by North Star Distillery, in North Wales, in conjunction with Harper Adams University.
Hands Free Hectare Gin is not for sale, but will instead be sampled by key sponsors and others involved in the Hands Free Hectare project, as a token of the university’s appreciation.
The gin had its test outing at a function on June 2nd, attended by various members of the HFH team and sponsors.
Harper Adams University researcher Jonathan Gill, who led the gin-production project, added: “We have wanted to make beer since we successfully harvested the Spring Barley last autumn, but brewing takes time. The benefit of gin, in addition to its current soaring popularity, is that it can be flavoured over a much shorter time frame.
“North Star Distillery have done a fantastic job with the Hands Free Hectare Gin. The barley gives it a smooth, warm flavour which we think would be perfect served with apple or berries.”
Clive Blacker, of project partner Precision Decisions, said: “The smooth quality and robust taste made a fantastic finish for the project. It was wonderful surprise tasting thanks to Jonathan’s hard work. The only downside is the bottle needed to be bigger with the gin proving nearly as popular as the project!”
The Hands Free Hectare has attracted attention from across the globe since the project started in October 2016.
The world-first project run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions to drill, tend and harvest a crop without operators on the machine and agronomists in the field has returned after successfully drilling its second crop; a hectare of winter wheat.
This time round, the Hands Free Hectare team are hoping to improve the accuracy of their machinery, and therefore improve the yield at harvest next year.
Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for industry partner Precision Decisions said: “The first year of the project aimed to prove that there’s now no technological reason a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly and we did that with only using off-the-shelf technology and open source software.
“Now we’re returning, thanks to funding from the AHDB and the continued support from our industry sponsors, to try and increase the yield through increasing accuracy of our machinery and improved remote agronomy. We’re trying to push for a more competitive yield compared to what you see on the AHDB recommended lists and all other trials data available.”
But it’s not been the easiest of starts for the team. Kit Franklin, agricultural engineering lecturer and the project lead said: “We had to abandon our first attempt to drill this season’s crop because it was raining quite heavily and the tractor was starting to slip around and lose its straight lines. The reason we’re doing the Hands Free Hectare again is to prove we can go straighter, so we called it a day and waited for better weather.
“After ten days of dreary weather, we managed to come back out and complete the task.
“When we drilled our spring barley earlier this year, the tractor was a bit wavy and so were the drill lines. We’ve had six months to develop the system and we’ve seen improvements which will improve field coverage and ultimately yield. The tractor was still a bit wayward when turning back into the field, but once it’s on the line it was really straight with pass to pass cover greatly improved.
“It’s great that we’ve had the chance to have another shot at this with the help of AHDB.
“It was brilliant to be part of the team that achieved this world first and to help lay down a marker in this sector. We’ve recently started seeing many commercial organisations coming out with their own autonomous agricultural solutions, showing that there’re working on this. I think we could start seeing autonomous tractors and robots on farms any day.”
Harper Adams University’s mechatronics researcher Jonathan Gill added: “We want to thank everyone that’s been, and continues to support us. We’re delighted to return for another year and show we can do it again. The Hands Free Hectare legacy is continuing to live on, and it’ll be improving.
“The media coverage that we got from the first round of the project was phenomenal – it truly went global and new items are still coming in. We’re pleased that we’ve had such an impact and started to get people really talking about automation in agriculture and how it’s already possible.
“But it’s going to take new talent entering the industry to develop this technology. We hope this project helps to inspire people and show them the range of interesting and innovative jobs that are available now in agriculture.”
Automated Harvest Time 06/09/2017
The ground-breaking Hands Free Hectare (HFHa), run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, which aimed to be the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop with only autonomous vehicles and drones, has come to an end after a successful harvest.
The Iseki tractor which was used earlier in the project for the spraying, drilling and rolling, was smaller and lighter than most tractors used nowadays. The team’s mentality that smaller is better was carried through to harvest which was completed with a combine harvester designed to harvest trial plots. The team believe that the use of smaller agricultural machines could improve soil and plant health.
Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, said: “There’s been a focus in recent years on making farming more precise, but the larger machines that we’re using are not compatible with this method of working. They’re also so heavy that their damaging farmers’ soils.
“If combines in the future were similar to the size of the combine we used in this project, which was a little Sampo combine with a header unit of only two meters, it would allow more precise yield maps to be created. They would also be much lighter machines.
“The weather can be an issue when farming, and provide only small windows for work to be completed; we’ve experienced it ourselves with this project. Just like anywhere in the UK, we’ve had to adjust our spraying times and harvest times due to the rain. This is part of the reason machines have been getting so much bigger over the years; we need to be able to complete work quickly. We believe the best solution is that in the future, farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles. These will be able to go out and work in the fields, allowing the farmer to use their time more effectively and economically instead of having to drive up and down the fields.
“But it’s going to take new talent entering the industry to develop the technology. We hope that this project has helped to inspire some people and shown them the range of interesting and innovative jobs that are available now in agriculture.”
Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for the industry lead, Precision Decisions, said: “This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now and we’ve done that. We set-out to identify the opportunities for farming and to prove that it’s possible to autonomously farm the land, and that’s been the great success of the project.
“We achieved this on an impressively low budget compared to other projects looking at creating autonomous farming vehicles. The whole project cost less than £200k, funded by Precision Decisions and Innovate UK. We used machinery that was readily available for farmers to buy; open source technology; and an autopilot from a drone for the navigation system.”
Jonathan added: “Despite our combine being 25 years old, it performed absolutely wonderfully.
“It’s phenomenal to know that I was part of this world-first project. To know that we’ve actually done it and you can now look out at the field and see it’s all gone. We grew it, nursed it and now we’ve harvested it, completely autonomously. What an achievement.”
“It feels amazing to have finished,” said Martin. “We’ve worked all year for this. At some points it didn’t feel like it was ever going to happen, but we’ve done it.
“Our major challenge leading up to harvest was getting the combine ready. We spent a lot of time practising; getting our headland turns right and on the day they appeared to be perfect, which was amazing to see.
“The combine drove a lot better than the tractor. We made a bit of a breakthrough with that. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to make the same adaptions to our tractor, so even though we’d practised a rolling team, as a precaution during the actual trial, we didn't allow the tractor to get too close to the combine to avoid any accidents.
“Throughout the year we’ve been predicting a yield of 5 tonnes. Looking in the trailer, it looks like we’re not quite there. Our agronomist predicted 4.5 tonnes and it looks like he’s on the money.”
The team now plan to make a Hands Free Hectare beer with the spring barley that has been harvested. They also hope to bring the project back by repeating the experiment, but with a winter crop.
Anyone who is interested in the project and wants to help keep it alive for 2018, please get in contact with the Hands Free Hectare team.
The Hands Free Hectare nears harvest
The Hands Free Hectare (HFHa) project at Harper Adams University, which aims to be the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop with only drones and autonomous vehicles, is nearing to an end.
Harvesting of the spring barley at the ground-breaking project, which has been run in partnership with Precision Decisions, will take place during the next three weeks.
Kit Franklin, agricultural engineering lecturer and the project’s lead, said: “The crop has done really well; it’s nearly matured and looking like it’s going to yield quite well. Obviously we do have the misses where the tractor wasn’t quite driving straight when we were drilling it but I think it’s going to yield reasonably well and harvest is fast approaching. Work has been very intensive to ensure the combine is ready in time.
“The combine is using very similar systems to the ones that we established on the tractor that we used for spraying, drilling and rolling our hectare. There’s a large number of actuators to move and control all of the systems on the combine which have had to be fitted.”
Looking back on the challenges the project has thrown at the team, Kit added: “After successfully drilling and rolling the crop, we had to try and turn round the tractor and reconfigure it into a sprayer very quickly to try and get a pre-emergence spray on.
“Sadly, we missed that target but we have since managed to get on our T1 and T2 fungicides, including a herbicide to help tackle some grass weeds we were seeing and micro-nutrients to aid the crop growth, so chemical coming from Bayer and the nutrients from Yara, which is great.”
Hutchinsons’s Kieran Walsh, the team’s agronomist, said: “As the crop was drilled late disease levels have been fairly low. For this project it’s worked rather well, maybe a little compromise in yield, but it’s allowed us to always be protecting the crop from disease.
“I’ve also received plant samples from the robot scout; it’s driven out over the field on set points and scooped up soil and plant samples. These are then brought back to mission control for us to examine.
“For me this has been one of the most challenging parts of the project, as I get a feel of what crops are doing when I walk through a field. With our hands-free crop I’ve studied the scout video footage very closely to determine the weed levels and disease on the crop.
“We’ve also used live streaming from mission control which has been very useful. This has enabled me to ask the team to pick certain plants and check specific areas for disease levels and crop growth stages.
“This is a really exciting project to be part of and it is causing me to have to think ‘outside the box’ in order to build the picture of how to give our crop the best agronomic advice.”
Field to be farmed exclusively by robots – a world-firstProject to farm a hectare of spring barley exclusively with autonomous vehicles continues
Drilling completed autonomously at the Hands Free Hectare
Drilling completed autonomously at Hands Free Hectare
The Hands Free Hectare team have successfully got over their first major hurdle of the project; drilling the hectare site at Harper Adams University with their self-driving tractor.
The project aims to be the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop by only using autonomous vehicles.
The end of the six hour long drilling operation was marked by cheers of relief and delight from the team – their tractor, which they only received in December and then made autonomous, had successfully navigated the whole hectare site and sown the spring barley seeds.
The drilling came after the pre-seeding herbicide application which the tractor also completed successfully using a GPS controlled precision sprayer developed for the project.
Martin Abell, from Precision Decisions, the project’s industry partner, said: “The tractor is able to navigate the hectare using an autopilot system for drones. This allows it to follow a pre-determined path in the field. It runs entirely on GPS and follows the requested route making its way between waypoints. The waypoints are digital GPS markers created using our software that we have positioned at the ends of the field for the tractor to navigate to; like a more advanced version of dot-to-dot. Our waypoints for the drilling also incorporated lifting and lowering signals that picked the drill up at one end and place it back down once it had turned around.
“The SimTech Aitchison drill that we used is normally for drilling in-between the vines of vineyards to plant cover crops used as green manures to help fertilise the vines naturally. It’s suited us perfectly as it’s a conventional agricultural system, just on a smaller scale; like our whole project.”
Kit Franklin, agricultural engineering lecturer at Harper Adams University and project lead added: “Although the system sounds very technical at the moment, and a lot of work has gone into making it work, we do hope that in the future systems based on this concept will exist. They’ll be easy enough for a farmer to use by simply inputting what they require in their computer and the robotic vehicles will go off and do it.
“I believe that farmers will be able to concentrate on agronomic and business decisions, whilst overseeing and managing a number of smaller automated machines; instead of sitting in a large tractor with 300 plus horsepower driving up and down the field.
“In order to achieve this, there’ll be a vast opportunity for careers in the agricultural engineering sector which will be very rewarding and exciting. Those people will be changing agricultural machinery as we currently know it.”
To get to where they are now, the three engineers have had support and assistance from a number of people in different areas in agriculture. The third member of the team, robotics researcher at Harper Adams University Jonathan Gill, said: “So far everything on the Hands Free Hectare project has been a real team effort. For the drilling we had Simon Clarke from SimTech come and calibrate our drill for us, also setting the seeding along with Kieran Walsh from Hutchinsons, who’s the Hands Free Hectare agronomist. In addition, Precision Decisions' Harry Cadwallader set-up our spraying system for the liquid fertiliser that was placed whilst seeding.
“Now we have to start thinking towards the future. The seeds are in the ground and we’ve got to consider the agronomy; how’re we actually going to do that? We have to start thinking about using our ground rover to produce visuals for Kieran. We also have to start using the drone to capture our multispectral imagery to see where the first emergences are going to be and how we’re going to start treating our crop.”
Updates on the project will be shared by the team via social media: Twitter (@FreeHectare), YouTube, and Facebook (@HandsFreeHecatre).
Project to farm a hectare of spring barley exclusively with autonomous vehicles at Harper Adams University continues
Project to farm a hectare of spring barley exclusively with autonomous vehicles at Harper Adams University continues
The 'Hands Free Hectare' project, which will see a crop exclusively farmed by robots for the first time in the world, is well under-way, with the team having already selected the key machinery required to reach their goal.
The team of three engineers aims to grow and harvest a hectare of spring barley without setting foot into the field. Since the project launch in October, the team have been busy determining the specifications for the equipment, along with purchasing.
Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, said: "We've created a prototype and tested the automation system on an electric all-terrain vehicle in the field. We've proved that it can drive up and down in a consistent straight line; this is what we aim to achieve during our first task of planting the crop."
The next steps are to incorporate this system onto the Iseki tractor that will be used by the team for drilling and spraying.
Jonathan added: "The project, and engineering as a whole, comes down to specifications and this is definitely true with this project. The requirements of the entire system need to account for the crop row spacing, even the shape of the field, to coordinate with the tractor and machinery available."
Martin Abell, from Precision Decisions, the project's industry partner, said: "The selection process has been very important and time consuming."
"The drill that we'll be using is a vineyard drill which is normally used to add green manure (cover crops) between vines to help the soil retain nutrients. The coulters and seed metering mechanism are identical to those used on conventional versions of the drill and so it suits our application perfectly."
"The spray system that we've selected is not only appropriate for the tractor, giving sufficient capacity to cover the area, but also works with common agricultural practices. "
"We're going to use a conventional sprayer controller, the same system that can be bought by a farmer. This means the sprayer will be a self-contained unit, looking after itself while the tractor navigates the hectare."
"We've also turned our attention to safety. It is incredibly important that we have safety systems enabled in the unlikely situation that something goes wrong. The machines will not be radio-controlled but act autonomously. We've found laser scanners which will monitor the front of the tractor and stop it should anything be too close.
"It's been a challenge to find systems that work with our vehicles in conditions that robots aren?t normally put in. For example, actuators supplied by Linak, help to control the transmission and other functions in tough environments."
Alongside preparing the tractor for drilling in a couple of months? time, the team are also focusing on creating a mission control. This will provide a platform to see the field in real-time and supplement feedback from the robots whilst working.
Due to the popularity of the project, the engineering department are helping the project by providing a camera that will be fixed to the outside of mission control. Here they are hoping to 'live-stream' important events in the field. They anticipate that they can use renewables to power the cameras.
Jonathan commented: "We've had more in-kind sponsors join the project since we started in October. They are very excited to be a part of this project and have been incredibly generous. We're very thankful for their help."
Martin added, "It's great to see more people believing in, and wanting to support the project. Now that we are a quarter of the way through, I feel that people can really see we have the momentum behind us to make this project work."
Follow the team's progress on their website (handsfreehectare.com) and via social media - Twitter (@FreeHectare), Facebook (@HandsFreeHectare), YouTube (Hands Free Hectare HFH)
By: Adreen Hart-Rule
In a world-first, members of Harper Adams University engineering staff, supported and led by precision farming specialist Precision Decisions Ltd, are attempting to grow and harvest a hectare of cereal crops; all without stepping a foot into the field.
The project entitled 'Hands Free Hectare' has recently got underway, with the team having to create their first autonomous farming machinery, ready for drilling a spring crop in March.
Kit Franklin, one of the researchers, said: "As a team, we believe there is now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. This project gives us the opportunity to prove this and change current public perception".
"Previously, people have automised sections of agricultural systems, but funding and interest generally only goes towards one single area. We're hoping to string everything together to create one whole system, which will allow us to farm our hectare of cereal crop from establishment to harvest, without having to go into the field. "
"We are confident that we are going to be successful implementing current open source technology, but obviously there is an element of risk. This is the first time in the world that this has been done but pushing boundaries is what engineering research is about."
"We will be using small-scale machinery that is already available on the market, and adapting these in the university?s engineering labs ready for the autonomous field work."
"We will be drilling a spring crop in March. April to July will comprise crop husband activities with remote agronomy and autonomous application of required inputs and then harvesting in August and September."
On why this project is important, Kit added: "Automation is the future of farming. We?re currently at a stage where farm machinery has got to unsustainable sizes."
"Over the years agricultural machines have been getting bigger increasing work rates. This has suited the UK's unpredictable climatic working windows and reduced rural staff availability."
"But with these larger machines, we are seeing a number of issues, including reduced soil health through compaction which hinders plant growth, as well as reduced application and measuring resolution, critical for precision farming, as sprayer and harvesting widths increase."
"Automation will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction. These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture."
"It's not about putting people out of jobs; instead changing the job they do. The tractor driver won't be physically in the tractor driving up and down a field. Instead, they will be a fleet manager and agricultural analysts, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops."
The project's main partner is Precision Decisions Ltd. Clive Blacker, managing director and Hands Free Hectare project lead said: ?The opportunity to convert our current experience of autosteer and precision agronomy solutions and embark on an autonomous solution is very exciting.
"Automation undoubtedly will become a large part of agriculture?s future. By working with Harper Adams, the leading global centre for agricultural robotic research, this allows us to understand the challenges autonomous solutions bring and to develop new tools and services from this opportunity."
"What we learn from this experience is fundamental in allowing us to fulfil the needs of tomorrow`s farmer, to fully embrace the digital revolution we face today."
Updates on the project will be shared by the team via social media: Twitter (@FreeHectare), YouTube, and Facebook (@HandsFreeHecatre).
Funding for the project is being provided through the Innovate UK - Satellites and agri-food competition. This competition is providing funding to projects aiming to improve the productivity of agri-food systems using satellite technology.
by: Adreen Hart-Rule