Hands Free Hectares challenges perceptions

Hands Free Hectares plants winter wheat crop

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Agricultural engineer Kit Franklin, who is leading the team conducting the Hands Free Hectare project, with the automated tractor that is doing all the work. Picture: Lea Coghlan.

Agricultural engineer Kit Franklin, who is leading the team conducting the Hands Free Hectare project, with the automated tractor that is doing all the work. Picture: Lea Coghlan.


Hands Free Hectares returns for a second year with the hope of improving yields and remote agronomy.


The world-first project run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions in the United Kingdom to drill, tend and harvest a crop without operators on the machines and agronomists in the field has planted its second Hands Free Hectare (HFHa).

Visiting Australia for the Grains Research and Development Corporation’s (GRDC) Grains Research Update, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, Martin Abell, was the headline speaker at the Goondiwindi event on Tuesday. 

Speaking to a room full of interested participants, Mr Abell said they didn’t set out to show farmers how it should be done, but rather that it could be done and ask the question why it hadn't been done already by the big guys.

“Compared to other technologies in the world it's not complex, and if John Deere and C&H wanted to do it, they could've done it ten years ago,” he said.

“We had a year-long project to challenge perceptions that automated farming was a thing of the future and show that it could be happening now.

“To do that we had to take a different route because it was only a one year project.

“Instead of starting from scratch, like a lot of research which is very expensive, we stuck with what was now and what was current, and just used smaller versions of conventional agriculture machines.

“With our automation we took the little computer out of the drone and put that on our vehicles and used that to control them using key components, and free, open-source software to do that.”

Highlighting the challenges of the project, Mr Abell said using drone technology to control the machines was their biggest stumbling block. 

“Although everything we used worked in its own right, it wasn't necessarily designed to do what we did with it, and making those adaptions and learning to play the tune of the system and do what we expected it to do was a challenge,” he said. 

The project attracted global attention after its researchers grew one hectare of barley in 2017, a crop that yielded 4.5 tonnes without humans entering the paddock. 

In its second season, the HFHa project has planted a crop of winter wheat.

Precision Decisions mechatronics researcher, Martin Abell.

Precision Decisions mechatronics researcher, Martin Abell.

Mr Abell said this crop would be about yields and the accuracy of their machinery.

“The first year of the project aimed to prove that there’s now no technological reason a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly and we did that with only using off-the-shelf technology and open source software.

“Now we’re returning, thanks to funding from the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) and the continued support from our industry sponsors, to try and increase the yield through increasing accuracy of our machinery and improved remote agronomy.

“We’re trying to push for a more competitive yield compared to what you see on the AHDB recommended lists and all other trials data available.”

“We've planted our crop with much better coverage than the first time, and then to go with that we've tried to improve our agronomy as well with more remote sensing so we can try to see what's happening in the field before it's a visual thing.”

To celebrate the success of the first HFHa, the group is having half a tonne of the barley they grew malted and turned into beer. 

“It actually makes quite a lot of beer and it's more than we'll manage to drink on our own, so we're going to have some sort of party or barbecue once it warms up in the UK to thank all of our people that helped, and everyone that's been involved in the project,” Mr Abell said.

The story Hands Free Hectares challenges perceptions first appeared on Queensland Country Life.


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