It's been six years since the team at the Hands Free research farm began their quest to prove that fully autonomous vehicles could be the future of farming.
The Hands Free Hectare was the first project of its kind in the world to try to grow, tend and harvest a crop without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. Since then, the researchers have not only met their objective, but successfully scaled it up, and begun demonstrating the specialist new career roles that will be required to build and operate commercially-sized Hands Free farms.
Reflecting on and celebrating that progress, researchers, sponsors and VIP guests recently gathered in the Agri EPI Midlands Innovation hub – and looked forward to the next steps in this 'sector transforming' journey.
The presentation was opened by Harper Adams vice-chancellor Professor Ken Sloan, who told attendees that the global reach of the project had helped capture his interest in Harper Adams and its work while he was in his previous role at Monash University in Australia.
He added: “We are really keen to talk about the project – and not just what is happening now, but some of the next steps as well. As Kit has reminded me, this is not something the University could have done in isolation – and I look forward to collaborating in the future.”
The project has been run in partnership between Harper Adams and Precision Decisions, along with the UK division of Australian precision agriculture specialist, Farmscan AG.
Hands Free Farm principal investigator, Kit Franklin, Farmscan AG director Callum Chalmers, Precision Decisions operations director Martin Abell and Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, holder of the Elizabeth Creak Chair in Agri-Tech Applied Economics, then went on to set out how the farm had developed practically, technologically, and in research terms over the past six years.
Kit told attendees that, despite the Hands Free Farm also winning numerous awards and receiving significant media interest from across the globe, its true value had been in helping to drive forward commercial research, policy development and learning for Harper Adams students across a variety of courses.
He said: “Going forward, the project as is comes to an end in six weeks – but we have a unique opportunity to keep learning, and to learn more.
“When we look at the range of equipment we have here at the Hands Free Farm, we have some fairly unconventional equipment, but with this sort of equipment and this sort of land, it opens the farm – right here, right now – to starting an autonomous strip crop field here on the Harper Adams site.”
As this new project develops, academics from across Harper Adams and beyond will work with the Hands Free team to examine everything from soil quality to insect life and biodiversity on the site, which will be prepared for spring crops to be harvested in early 2023.
Following the presentations, attendees got the chance to see some of the Hands Free Farm machines and discuss them with team members, before making their way out to the Hands Free Farm site to watch its autonomous vehicles in operation.