Robots take over farming

It’s harvest season in many parts of the world, but on one farm in the UK, robots – not humans – are doing all the heavy lifting.

At Hands Free Hectare, an experimental farm run by researchers from Harper Adams University, in the village of Edgmond in the UK, about 4.5 tonnes of spring barley have been harvested from the world’s first robotically tended farm. Everything from start to finish – including sowing, fertilising, collecting samples and harvesting – has been done by autonomous vehicles on the farm.

The team behind the project thinks that robotic technology could improve yields in agriculture, which is necessary if the world’s growing population is to be fed in coming years. The researchers tackled this problem by using commercially available agriculture machines and open-source software that is used to guide hobbyists’ drones.

“In agriculture, nobody has really managed to solve the problem of autonomy,” said Jonathan Gill, mechatronics researcher at Harper Adams University, who led the project.”We were like, ‘Why is this not possible?’ If it’s possible in drone autopilots that are relatively cheap, how come there are companies out there that are charging exorbitant amounts of money to actually have a system that just follows a straight line?”

The researchers bought several small-size agricultural machines, including a tractor and a combine, a machine for harvesting grain crops. They then fitted the machines with actuators, electronics and robotic technology that would allow them to control the machines without the presence of a human operator.

“The first stage was to make it radio-controlled,” Gill said. “This was our first step towards autonomy. From that point, we moved on to pre-program all the actions that need to be performed into the autopilot system.”

Gill’s collaborator, Martin Abell, who works for Precision Decisions, an industrial agricultural company that partners with the university, explained that the system follows a certain trajectory with pre-programmed stops to perform certain actions.

“The vehicles navigate entirely based on the GPS, and they are just essentially driving towards targets that we predetermined,” Abell said. “At different GPS targets, there are different actions designed to be carried out.”

Abell said the researchers struggled to make the machines follow a straight line, which initially resulted in quite a lot of crop damage. However, the scientists think they will be able to fix the problem in the coming years and will eventually achieve better yields than a conventionally maintained farm of the same size could produce.

To monitor the field and take samples of the plants, the researchers developed special grippers attached to drones. As the drone flies above the field, the grippers can cut off some samples and deliver them to the researchers.

The scientists said the robotic technology could enable future farmers to more precisely distribute fertilisers and herbicides, but could also lead to improvements in soil quality. Currently, to achieve all the required tasks in a reasonable amount of time, farmers rely on very large and heavy machines. In the future, they could use flocks of smaller robotic tractors and harvesters, the researchers said.

The farmer would, for example, be able to apply fertiliser only to the plants that are doing poorly and wouldn’t waste it on those that don’t need it, the researchers said.

“At the moment, the machines used in agriculture are large, they operate quickly, they cover large areas of ground quickly, but with it comes inaccuracy,” Abell said. “Small machines working with smaller working widths would provide a means to bring the resolution down. Instead of a 100-foot (30 m) sprayer, you would have a 20-foot (6 m) sprayer, and that’s just the beginning of making things smaller.”


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