Automated tillage moves closer to becoming a reality

British researchers have successfully harvested two seasons of grain on a trial plot using robots and a driverless tractor and combine

Hands-free: The driverless Sampo combine and Iseki tractor in action
Hands-free: The driverless Sampo combine and Iseki tractor in action

Derek Casey and Chris McCullough

Extra funding has been made available to a unique autonomous arable farming project aiming to deliver 'hands-free' harvesting.

Initially launched in 2016 by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, the Hands Free Hectare project was designed to demonstrate that one hectare of grain could be grown to harvest without humans ever setting foot on the land.

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Since then, the group has successfully harvested two seasons of grain by only using robots and autonomous machinery, including a driverless tractor and combine. Without setting foot in the one hectare field, the group remotely managed to perform all tasks associated with the crop, including preparing the ground, sowing the seeds, maintaining the crop and subsequently the harvest.

With £200,000 worth of government funding, the team were able to convert a small Iseki tractor and a 25-year-old combine harvester with a two-metre header into autonomous robots with cameras, lasers and GPS systems.

As no one was allowed to step in the field, drones were used to scoop up soil samples and take crop samples for testing as well as monitoring the crop for weeds and disease.

Riding on that initial success, the team at Hands Free Hectare have been awarded extra funding to expand their operations to a full farm of 35 hectares. The new Hands Free Farm will be a three-year-long project, run in partnership once again between Harper Adams and Precision Decisions, along with a new partner, the UK division of Australian precision agriculture specialist Farmscan AG.

University mechatronics researcher Jonathan Gill said: "This time, we're planning to grow three different combinable crops across 35 hectares. 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," he said.

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Precision Decisions engineer Martin Abell said: "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."

The goal of the new larger farm is to become a 'testbed' for agricultural innovation where companies can visit to try out their new innovations.

John Deere developing a driverless electric tractor

Driverless concept vehicles are being developed in agriculture at a relatively fast pace but there is still some distance to go before they become commercially available.

While the theory is acceptable, the practice of having driverless tractors is still a bit of a stumbling block for many with safety of operation remaining a huge concern.

il John Deere electric tra.jpg
John Deere's GridCON project

No doubt there will come a time when the technology will advance at an even greater pace and the concept will become a reality. After all, if robotic lawnmowers are acceptable then tractors will become so too.

John Deere has also joined the path to developing an autonomous tractor albeit electric and powered by a cable. Its GridCON project offers a tractor of up to 400 horsepower and is designed to use the electrical energy produced on a farm itself.

Based on a John Deere 6210R tractor, GridCON utilises a cable connection from the field border to the machine, which transfers power continuously at over 300kW. A 100kW electric motor powers the IVT transmission, and there is an additional outlet for implements powered by a 200kW electric motor.

A drum fixed to the tractor carries up to 1,000m of cable.

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