Successful UK Study Proves Concept of “Hands-Free” Robotic Farming
The government-sponsored Hands Free Hectare program undertaken by Harper Adams University in Newport, UK has successfully harvested a hectare of barley from a field managed entirely by autonomous robots with no direct human involvement in any step of the farming from planting, tending, to harvesting.
While the hectare’s yield was below-average at about 2/3 of the expected yield for more traditionally farmed barley –and vastly more expensive, due to research and capital costs– the ground-breaking success of the Hands Free Hectare’s first season is a solid proof-of-concept and demonstrates the viability for autonomous systems in agriculture.
While not practical yet for large-scale implementation and mass adoption, AI and robotic systems could lead soon to a revolution in agriculture. With the inevitable advances of such autonomous technologies, farms could feasibly operate 24/7, employing teams of coordinated machines at every step of the farming process in a way that would enable cheaper, faster, and more productive farming with methods that no amount of human labor can achieve, such as monitoring crops and soil at the level of individual plants.
Agriculture is no stranger to autonomy. Tractors were among the first commercial autonomous vehicles, and there’s a huge market for drones packed with sensors that can help farmers make more informed decisions. The problem, though, is that farming is still work for humans. There’s still dirt, early mornings, dirt, more dirt, and a lot of hard work that involves some extra dirt. All this dirty-ness makes farming an ideal target for robots, especially since farms also offer repetitive tasks in a semi-constrained environment. At Harper Adams University, they’re taking the farm autonomy idea very seriously: Seriously enough that they’ve managed to plant, tend, and harvest an acre and a half of barley using only autonomous vehicles and drones.
During the Hands Free Hectare project, no human set foot on the field between planting and harvest—everything was done by robots. This includes:
– Drilling channels in the dirt for barley seeds to be planted at specific depths and intervals with an autonomous tractor;
– Spraying a series of fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers when and where necessary;
– Harvesting the barley with an autonomous combine.
Modern farming is much more complicated than just dropping some seeds on the ground and then coming back later for tasty food; the amount and composition of the pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers, and even the timing of the final harvest, depends on a data-driven understanding of the state of the crop. To make these decisions, robot scouts (including drones and ground robots) surveyed the field from time to time, sending back measurements and bringing back samples for humans to have a look at from the comfort of someplace warm and dry and clean.