World-first Hands Free Hectare project plants and harvests without operators on the machines

World-first Hands Free Hectare project plants and harvests without operators on the machines

The Hands-free Hectare projects free Hectare project in the UK has successfully harvested a hectare of winter wheat using their autonomous combine harvester, without operators on the machines or agronomists in the field.

The project which began two years ago, and also achieved unloading on the move for the first time with their ISEKI tractor.

Mechatronics Engineer for Precision Decisions Martin Abell said:

“We’re pleased with our harvest, but our key achievement this year was completing a rolling team. Last year, we tried an unload on the move, but we weren’t able to get out tractor close enough to the Sampo combine because of the accuracy issues we were experiencing with the control systems at the time.

“We have continued to make improvements to our system on the tractor, including adding an auto-start so we can start it remotely if required. We enhanced the auto-pilot in time for drilling which led to improved driving accuracy and therefore an increased field coverage.

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“Thanks to these improvements, this year, we were also able to run the rolling team; unloading grain from the combine into a trailer behind our tractor which was running alongside it, which makes the harvest process far more efficient and quicker to complete. This was something we’d talked about doing before the project had even begun; we’d laughed and joked and said it would be the icing on the cake and it was great it worked this year.

“We still had a little involvement with the tractor through the remote control, just to ensure it got onto the right line, but once it was there, it drove itself to within a 5cm accuracy. Our combine ran autonomously throughout the cutting, and yet again it completed the headland turns without a problem.”

Alongside harvest, the team invited Caroline Dawson from local catering company Fodder in the Field to cook fresh pizzas at the side of the hectare, using ‘hands-free’ wheat from the field itself which was brilliant.

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But what’s next for the team that has exceeded all expectations?

Jonathan Gill, Mechatronics Researcher at Harper Adams University, said: “We’ve been working on this project for the past two years to really tight deadlines. We’re really pleased with what we’ve achieved; starting out with nothing in October 2016 to being able to drill with the tractor in May 2017, harvesting in the September, and then turning everything round ready to plant the wheat for a second growing season in November.

HFH2 Team
HFH2 Team

“For the next year we’re putting a cover crop into the hectare, this will protect the land as we use it as a test space while we continue to improve our technology, which we haven’t been able to do while growing cereal crops in the field.

“During the past two years, we’ve come across a number of technological challenges that we simply haven’t had the time to overcome. This next year is a great opportunity to address them.

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“We’ll also be taking on new and exciting challenges, including working on our tractor so that it can drive itself from the shed to the field. We plan to integrate technology from self-driving cars and will need to get the tractor interacting with its surroundings, including, for example, the gate so that it opens and closes when the tractor enters the hectare.”

Kit Franklin, Agricultural Engineering Lecturer added: “We’ve had an amazing couple of years, and we’d like to thank all of our sponsors and supporters for all of their help; we couldn’t have done it without them.

The project, run by Harper Adams University, recently won the Future Food Award at the BBC’s Food and Farming Awards which recognises the leading innovations disrupting the agri-food value chain.

The ceremony was held in Bristol and came with a USD$100,000 prize money.

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