By Becca Husselbee
A university has become the first in the world to farm a crop exclusively with the use of robots.
Harper Adams University in Newport, Shropshire, designed the groundbreaking robot, named Hands-Free Hectare (HFHa), which has become the world’s first to plant, tend and harvest a crop from a hectare-sized field.
With the use of the autonomous vehicles and drones, the team of university engineering staff, supported and led by farming specialists, have completed a successful harvest of spring barley.
Jonathan Gill, a researcher at the university, said: “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.”
The team believed that using smaller and lighter farm machinery could improve soil and plant health but with the UK’s unpredictable weather, machines have become bigger to complete work quicker whilst weather conditions are perfect.
Jonathan said: “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.”
New talent will need to enter the industry to ensure the development of technology but the team believes there is no reason why fields across the UK cannot be farmed with the use of robots.
Martin Abell, a researcher for farming services company, Precision Decisions, was also involved in the project and said:
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans.
“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 £200,000.
“It feels amazing to have finished, 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.”
Jonathan said: “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.”