Hands Free Hectare (HFHa), a project run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, part of the Map of Ag Group, has received funding from Innovate UK to create a ‘Hands Free Farm’
HFHa started in 2016 with the aim to be the first in the world to grow, tend and harvest a crop without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. The project has been taken through two successful cropping cycles, and won a number of awards; including the prestigious BBC Food and Farming Future Food Award.
The new Hands Free Farm will be a three-year-long project, run in partnership between Harper Adams and Precision Decisions, along with a new partner, the UK division of Australian auto steer specialist Farm Scan Agriculture.
The project is now underway and based at the university’s campus in Shropshire, where the original hectare was also located. The Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri- Epi Centre) are providing the team with development space and project management support at their Midlands Agri-Tech Innovation Hub, which is also located on the university’s campus.
Jonathan Gill, Mechatronics Researcher at the university 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.”
Martin Abell, Mechatronics Engineer for Precision Decisions, 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.
“Precision Decisions will be handling vehicle and data management through our MiFarm platform.”
Kit Franklin, Senior Agricultural Engineering Lecturer, said: “We want the farm to become a testbed for agricultural innovation. Once the farm’s established, we’ll be encouraging companies to come and test and evaluate their technologies.
“It’s also great that the project will remain on the university campus, so that students will be able to learn from it, watch our progress and see how dynamic and innovative the agricultural engineering industry is.”
Additional elements to the project include: Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, the Elizabeth Creak Chair of Agri-Tech Economics at Harper Adams, conducting an economic outputs study in relation to the project; and in the final year of the project, alongside being run at the university, the system will be evaluated by partner farmer David Blacker.
The team are supported by the same consortium of in-kind sponsors as HFHa along with welcoming some new organisations.