The UK's award-winning Hands Free Hectare project has received funding from Innovate UK to create a whole hands-free farm.
The experiment, which is run by Harper Adams University and Map of Ag company Precision Decisions, started in 2016 with the aim to be the first in the world to grow, tend and harvest a crop without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground.
The project has been taken through two successful cropping cycles.
The new hands-free farm will be a three-year-long project, run in partnership between Harper Adams and Precision Decisions, along with a new partner - Farmscan AG. The latter is the UK division of an Australian precision agriculture specialist.
The project will continue to be based at the university’s campus in Shropshire.
The Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-Epi Centre) will provide the team with development space and project management support at their Midlands Agri-Tech Innovation Hub, which is also located on the university’s campus.
Jonathan Gill, mechatronics researcher at the university, said: “This time, we’re planning to grow three different combinable crops across 35ha.
We’re moving past the feasibility study which the hectare provided us with, to now a vision of the future of farming.
“We want to prove the capability and ability of these systems in reducing the levels of soil compaction and precision application.”
Martin Abell, mechatronics engineer for Precision Decisions, added: “With the farm, we’re looking to solve problems like fleet management and swarm vehicle logistics and navigation.
“We still believe that smaller vehicles are best, so we’ll be using up to three small tractors for the project, including our original ISEKI tractor, and a CLAAS combine will be joining our old Sampo.
This time, we’re moving away from the perfect hectare and to real world situations. The fields will be irregular, there’ll be obstacles, undulating land and pathways.
“Precision Decisions will be handling vehicle and data management through our MiFarm platform.”
Callum Chalmers, business development manager for Farmscan AG explained that the firm was hoping to combine its existing technology with an autonomous platform which could provide precision control across the farm.
“Our goal is to have multiple small unmanned vehicles working together seamlessly in the same fields, all remotely monitored and completing all the tasks you would expect in a commercial farm," he said.
Navigating roads and pathways between fields is an exciting new challenge; we want to face real-world conditions, where fields aren’t often in one place and it’s a necessity to travel between them.
Kit Franklin, senior agricultural engineering lecturer explained that the farm had the potential to become a test site for agri-robotics.
“We want the farm to become a testbed for agricultural innovation. Once the farm’s established, we’ll be encouraging companies to come and test and evaluate their technologies," he said.