Hands Free Farming

Host: | Date: 03 Oct 2018

  • GRDC Podcast

    GRDC Podcast: Hands Free Farming

    Using the autopilot from a drone as the ‘brains’ of their vehicles, Martin and his colleagues aimed to prove that mechatronics could reduce damage to crops and soil from humans and large machines

    Date: 03 Oct 2018

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Martin Abell and his colleagues have planted, sprayed, monitored and harvested the world’s first hands-free crop, using drone technology to fully automate farming of a one-hectare plot tucked behind the rugby fields at Shropshire’s Harper Adams University.

They’ve made beer from their harvested barley, and now have a wheat crop in the ground.

And Martin says autonomous vehicles like the ones they used are already working on a few Australian farms, spraying summer weeds and doing tram line regeneration in controlled traffic farming systems.

Using the autopilot from a drone as the ‘brains’ of their vehicles, Martin and his colleagues aimed to prove that mechatronics could reduce damage to crops and soil from humans and large machines.

The advantage of automation is that it uses smaller machines similar to those used 50-60 years ago, that allow for more precise application of inputs – a critical factor for farming sustainability, but also to consumers and governments legislating factors like chemical use on farms.

Martin doesn’t believe farming will ever be entirely hands-free and adoption of automation will depend on the complexity of the task, which is why we see these simpler operations happening.

In future farmers will spend time on more complicated tasks that don’t just involve the robotic job of sitting on an auto steer going up and down in a straight line. Martin says they’ll be out there making agronomic decisions that at the moment robots could never achieve.

It’s also about timeliness of operations. While working hours aren’t currently regulated in agriculture, if that ever eventuates he says automation will allow farmers to better use their time, rather than being in a field in the middle of the night.

Martin and his colleagues took the commands of the drone’s auto pilot and worked out how to interface them with the human controls on farm vehicles, using simple off the shelf components.

The challenge lay in the different thinking of the auto pilot compared to the code in a commercial auto steer system, and while they got much closer in terms of straight lines and functionality, he says the system is still not perfect.

Agronomy such as detecting disease and pests revolved around data they could capture with a drone, using a multi-spectral camera to gather NVDI imagery to identify the best and worst parts of the crop and sending a ground rover to bring a sample back.

This was fundamental to the project because legislation in the UK stipulates that a qualified agronomist must make agri chemical recommendations.

Martin says the project has not relied on investment from large manufacturers, which he attributes to the fact that these large companies are already working on automation themselves.

And the team from Precision Decisions and Harper Adams University is keen to expand. Martin says they’d love to set up another hands-free farm, maybe 20-25 hectares with four or five fields, to show farmers in the UK and across the world that this is a scalable technology.

Further information

Martin Abell
Precision Decisions
Harper Adams University
Shropshire UK.