Hands Free Farm completes first major operation despite Covid delays

The Hands Free Farm (HFF) team has successfully drilled a cover crop as the first major operation for the project.

The HFF launched in May 2019 following the end of the award-winning Hands Free Hectare (HFHa) feasibility study.

The project was the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop without a driver in the seat or agronomists on the ground.

Hands Free Farm is a three-year-long project which sees the idea behind Hands Free Hectare scaled up to 35ha.

The farm is run by Harper Adams University, Precision Decisions (a Map of Ag company), Farmscan AG and Agri-EPI Centre.

Image source HFF

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have developed a fleet of autonomous small vehicles working in swarms which can be operated from the farm office, ready for commercialisation.

When the project started, the original plan for year one, had been to drill two winter crops and a spring crop across its five fields. However, due to the poor winter weather experienced by the UK, winter drilling was postponed in the hope that it would all be done in spring.

These hopes were dashed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing.

The team had prepared to start drilling before March 27, the day Her Royal Highness Princess Anne was due to visit the project, but on March 23, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the lockdown of the United Kingdom.

However, the team were not deterred. They continued to work on the project from their individual homes, enabling them to be ready to drill when restrictions were relaxed.

The team have now successfully drilled two of their fields with the cover crop, while abiding by social distancing guidance.

Image source HFF

Kit Franklin, senior agricultural engineering lecturer, said: “Although drilling a cover crop wasn’t the original plan, nor even plan B or C, it will be good for the soils. It should also help the fields be flatter and more forgiving next year.

“This drilling has still provided a useful learning process; we’ve seen that the system is better than ever before and that we’ll be able to analyse the drilling performance when the crop emerges. This will enable us to improve the mapping ahead of working on combinable crops next year.”

For the first time, the team drilled the headlands. Martin Abell, operations manager at Precision Decisions, said: “The drill lifted a little too early on entry into the corners, so that’s somewhere we can improve.

“This happened because we decided to take a conservative approach to corners in the beginning to avoid potential problems caused by pulling the drill through tight angles.”

Callum Chalmers from FarmscanAg said: “We’ve seen how important it is for implement control systems to be flexible and seamlessly adapt for farming conditions this year at HFF.

“It was excellent to see the new control system drilling the cover crop over headlands for the day completely driverless. The row spacings turned out great and we’re looking forward to improving the drill’s corner angle turns for the next run.”

Looking forward

The team hope to complete a harvesting operation later this year, on a field that has been drilled with a spring barley crop by the Harper Adams University Farm using conventionally-sized manned machines.

“This option allows the testing of the combine harvester in a year when it would otherwise be impossible to work on a combinable crop within the Hands Free Farm,” said Mike Gutteridge, mechatronics senior graduate research assistant. “The potential learnings from this are an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.

“However, for us to be able to harvest, we are heavily reliant on specialist components being delivered from international suppliers which may not be possible this year due to the current situation.”

Mechatronics and UAS researcher Jonathan Gill captured footage of the drilling by drone.

Gill said: “The drone footage has more uses than just social media. It’s able to capture the full picture of our progress and allows future analysis of our path-planning, steering settings and timings for the tooling going in and out in the field. We’ll be able to look back on these and compare and improve if required.”