As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Big autonomy gains foe small farm businesses
by Arable Farming Magazine November/December 2022 issue
Technology from the ‘Hands Free’ projects could deliver the greatest benefit on smaller farms, suggests the engineer who has led them.
Autonomous systems pioneered by Hands Free Hectare and its successor Hands Free Farm are nearly ready to be deployed on commercial farms.
That is the view of Kit Franklin, senior lecturer in engineering at Harper Adams University, who has led the projects.
How swiftly they are adopted depends on the speed manufacturers develop machines and systems that farmers can use in commercial operations.
Mr Franklin suggests the system could be of greatest benefit to smaller farms.
It could also reverse the ‘bigger is more economic’ model that has dominated the industry in recent decades and help it improve its commercial and environmental records, he says.
Financial modelling based on the project suggests autonomous machines could help reduce the cost of crop production significantly, especially on smaller farms and fields.
Schemes Switching back to smaller machines could encourage farmers to reinstate hedges and other features to take advantage of the various environmental schemes now available Since its launch in 2016, Hands Free Hectare has made considerable progress.
In the first year its drilling of a single, level hectare of land was inaccurate, but the team still managed to grow and harvest the crop autonomously.
The accuracy and control of machines quickly improved and – despite the disruption caused by Covid-19 – the project has continued to progress.
In 2021 and 2022 the team drilled wheat, barley and beans on 34.6 hectares of Harper Adams University’s farm and harvested them autonomously.
This year, the team addition ally drilled spring beans on the Yorkshire farm of David Blacker in a trial to compare Hands Free Farm’s systems with standard farm practice, often with two drills working in the same field and communicating with each other to avoid accidents.
When the project moved to the open field site there was a need to prepare the machines appropriately and geofence the whole site before starting work.
Machines had to work uneven shaped and sloping fields – one of which includes a low-lying area of peaty land that often lies wet and was flooded for part of the trial.
Obstructions In some fields, the autonomous system had to work around fixed obstructions, such as telegraph poles and manhole covers, and it also needed to sense and avoid mobile obstructions, such as walkers, using the 1.5km of footpaths that cross the site.
The level of control and communication has improved beyond recognition, with the 2021 and 2022 harvests both seeing the combine and grain trailer working autonomously alongside each other.
That included ensuring the combine ceased grain offload as it approached the headland so the trailer could pull ahead and move out of its way to enable it to complete an unobstructed turn.
When the combine resumed harvesting the trailer automatically pulled back alongside the combine in the new pass so grain offloading could resume.
In some instances, the level of control is almost too good, because the trailer always pulled into exactly the same position relative to the combine, says Mr Franklin.
“Because the unloading auger always stayed in exactly the same spot the grain piled up there, rather than being spread along the trailer.
We were actually too precise.”
Developing a simple and easily understood control system has been key to the project.
The Hands Free Hectare team started with a simple system based on open-source technology, which was operable only by the team that designed it.
Now control is via a simple app that can be used by anyone using a suitable tablet or mobile device – something the team says is essential if the system is to be adopted widely.
Economics Any doubt that autonomous systems might struggle to achieve decent crop yields have been dispelled in the last two years.
In 2021 the two main fields produced an average of 9.27 tonnes/ha of wheat, with spring oats yielding 5.7t/ha and winter beans 4.6t/ha.
This harvest’s wheat yields were 9.56t/ha, but spring barley only achieved 4.03t/ha due to the dry conditions throughout the growing season.
Winter beans were expected to yield around 3.6t/ha.
The economics of the system will change according to the machines’ capability and the extent to which they need to be monitored, Mr Franklin adds.
“The ideal situation would be if machines could detect problems like blockages and clear them before restarting work without human intervention.
The more outside intervention required, the lower the potential cost savings.”
James Lowenberg-DeBoer, professor of agri-tech economics at Harper Adams University, says automation may benefit smaller farmers most.
“At the smaller end, this kind of equipment would allow the [smaller] farmer to produce competitively, although if they are all-arable running the farm might not be a full-time job.”
As an example of the potential benefits, he offers a cost comparison of a conventional farm versus an autonomous one, working up from 50 hectares.
He suggests that, at the smaller end, a conventional farm might produce wheat for around £170/t, while an autonomous one could achieve a cost closer to £140/t, both using one small tractor.
As unit size grows the conventional farm would use larger machines, whereas the autonomous one would add extra sets of smaller ones.
The model suggests the gap between the production costs of the two units would narrow and be reduced to around £13/t – £118/t compared to £131/t – by the time farm size reached 450ha, and remain broadly stable thereafter.
Prof Lowenberg-DeBoer expects producers of high value crops – especially organic ones – to be among the early adopters of autonomous systems because the machinery can help do routine, necessary work, such as mechanical weeding.
While robots are already deployed in livestock, these tend to be fixed – such as milking stations and feeding systems – or restricted to defined areas, such as automatic scrapers.
Adoption Key to widespread adoption will be that farmers are convinced of systems’ value and vehicles become available – via hiring, lease or purchase – at what farmers believe is an affordable price.
And he sees a clear parallel with very recent history.
“They could be widely adopted, in the way that auto-steer was.
At first farmers might have thought they didn’t need it, but once they realised its value it quickly became standard equipment”.
Protocols for the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads still need to be agreed, he adds, and the vehicles themselves need to be protected against cyber attacks.