Researchers in Shropshire, England have managed to sow and harvest a field of barley using nothing but robots. Many aspects of farming have now been automated, but rarely is the entire process — planting, tending, monitoring and harvesting — completed without someone stepping foot inside the field. The 'Hands-Free Hectare' project was set up last October by a team from Harper Adams University. With £200,000 in government funding, they modified a tractor and combine harvester with cameras, lasers and GPS systems. Drones and a robot "scout," which could scoop up and carry soil samples, helped the group monitor the field from afar.
Kit Franklin, the project's leader and an agricultural engineer, freely admits that it was "the most expensive hectare of barley ever." So why bother? Well, commercial farms and agriculture businesses tend to use large, heavy machinery. These vehicles are efficient, but have a damaging effect on the soil and subsequent crops. "Automation is the future of farming, but we're at a stage where farm machinery has got to unsustainable sizes," Franklin told The Times. He believes smaller, smarter vehicles are the future, as they can work with greater precision and reduce harmful soil compaction.
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The Hands-Free Hectare project, while successful, was not without its challenges. The tractor failed to keep a straight line in the field, which meant some of the crops were sown in crooked strips. After drilling and rolling the crop, the team also struggled to quickly repurpose their tractor for spraying. "Sadly, we missed that target but we have since managed to get on our T1 and T2 fungicides, including a herbicide to help tackle some grass weeds we were seeing and micro-nutrients to aid the crop growth," Kieran Walsh, the team's agronomist explains. Monitoring a field from a video feed, she adds, is harder than being out there and looking yourself.
It seems inevitable that automation's role in farming will grow in the future. Large-scale machinery is efficient and convenient in rural locations where labourers are hard to come by. That's not to say there won't be a place for human farmers — someone needs to monitor the robots and make sure they're working properly. As Walsh hints, there's also a certain something, an ability to "read" the land that's unique to farmers. Until a machine can replicate these observational skills, there will be a need for humans to pull on their boots and get down in the dirt every so often.