Harper Adams’ engineering specialist Dr. Kit Franklin has told members of the Northern Ireland Institute of Agricultural Science (NIIAS) that autonomous farming techniques will be used to help feed the world’s growing population in a sustainable manner.

“Sustainability means taking full account of the fact that the world’s resources are shrinking, particularly the area of available land on which to grow crops," he said.

“In other words, farmers will have to secure higher yields from less inputs. The solution to this challenge lies in the better use of precision farming techniques.

"But the development of bigger tractors and farm machinery is totally counter intuitive in this regard."

Franklin pointed out that larger machines are less "precision focused".

“This simply reflects the larger scale of their land footprint. Ever-larger machines are also causing soil compaction issues, which dramatically reduce crop yields.”

Franklin added: "GPS control applications are available on 80% of the tractors now in use across the UK. They are helping to save farmers significantly on their input costs.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be achieved by a combination of precision farming and smaller, autonomously controlled tractors and other farm machinery items.

Franklin then summarised the work he had pioneered at Harper Adams in developing the world’s first autonomous crop production system. Christened the ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project, it has allowed him and his colleagues to develop a wholly autonomous soil preparation, drilling, crop management and harvesting system.

It centres on the use of a 38hp tractor with accompanying harrow, seed drill, fertiliser spreader, sprayer and combine.

Over the past two years his team has succeeded in growing crops of winter barley and wheat in a one-hectare field. Both crops were grown on the basis that a human being never entered the field at any time.

The barley, which was the first crop grown, yielded 4.5t/ha. The subsequent wheat crop yielded 6t/ha. Drones were used regularly to monitor the progress of the crops.

“The GPS and autonomous technologies we have used were readily available and relatively cheap. The Hands Free Hectare project has shown what is possible when it comes to the evolution of future crop production systems.

“Swarms of smaller machines, autonomously controlled, can make precision agriculture a true reality while, at the same time, solving the problem of soil compaction.

"Our next challenge is that of farming a 35ha block and including three different cropping systems within our management model."

Franklin concluded: “This is not robotic farming. Such a development will only kick-in once machines can actually think for themselves. However, we are moving in that direction.”