First entirely autonomous harvest, completed at UK robotic farm

First entirely autonomous harvest, completed at UK robotic farm

It’s harvest season in many parts of the world, but on one farm in the United Kingdom, 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 U.K., about 5 tons (4.5 metric tons) of spring barley have been harvested from the world’s first robotically tended farm. Everything from start to finish — including sowing, fertilizing, collecting samples and harvesting — has been done by autonomous vehicles on the farm, according to the researchers.

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 purchased 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 preprogram all the actions that need to be performed into the autopilot system.”


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