UK university to showcase robotic-grown spring barley

Move over robotic milking – the focus is now on growing and harvesting cereal crops remotely.

Members of Harper Adams University engineering staff in the UK have set out to show that robotic grain-growing is the way forward.

The venture – ‘Hands-Free Hectare’ – got underway last year. The team is made up of two Harper Adams engineers as well as an engineer from Precision Decisions Ltd.

Kit Franklin, one of the researchers, said: “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 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.”

The team is using small-scale machinery already available. It’s being adapted in the university’s engineering labs ready for the autonomous fieldwork.

A spring crop was drilled during a six-hour robotic operation with a self-driving tractor in April.

The drilling was done after a pre-seeding herbicide application which the tractor completed using a GPS-controlled precision sprayer, developed for the project.

The tractor navigated the hectare using an autopilot system for drones.

Slight teething problems meant that a team member had to enter the field on a few occasions.

This was because the tractor cut out due to an intermittent fault that the team will be investigating.

So far this has only occurred in the headland, so the team managed to stay out of the main hectare where the crop has been planted.

Once the tractor is switched back on, the team leaves the field immediately and the tractor continues its work.

Between now and July, the focus is on crop husbandry activities with remote agronomy and autonomous application of required inputs.

Harvesting will be at the end of August or into September. It’s then planned to make beer from the crop.

Automation is the future of farming. We’re currently at a stage where farm machinery has got to unsustainable sizes, Franklin said.

“Over the years, agricultural machines have been getting bigger, increasing work rates.

“With these larger machines, we’re seeing a number of issues, including reduced soil health through compaction which hinders plant growth.

“There is also reduced application and measuring resolution, critical for precision farming, as sprayer and harvester widths increase,” Franklin said.

Automation, he said, will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction.

These small autonomous machines will facilitate high-resolution precision farming.

Different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants, will be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.

“It’s not about putting people out of jobs but changing the job they do. The tractor driver won’t be physically in the tractor driving up and down a field,“ Franklin said.

“Instead, they will be fleet managers and agricultural analysts, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops.”

Anyone planning on travelling over to Cereals 2017 in Lincolnshire on June 14 and 15, will be able to see the robotic innovation on display.

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