A world-first is being claimed for a student-led project to farm a crop exclusively with robots.

The ‘Hands Free Hectare’ (HFHa), run by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, is the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop with only autonomous vehicles and drones.

The project has now come to an end and the crop successfully harvested – and all without the need for a human hand on the tiller.

An Iseki tractor which was used earlier in the project for spraying, drilling and rolling, was smaller and lighter than most tractors used nowadays, but this was part of the team’s philosophy that ‘smaller is better’. This was carried through to harvest, which was completed with a combine harvester designed to harvest trial plots.

The students believed that the use of smaller machines would improve soil and plant health.

Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, said: “There’s been a focus in recent years on making farming more precise, but the larger machines that we’re using are not compatible with this method of working.

“They’re also so heavy that they’re damaging farmers’ soils. If combines in the future were similar to the size of the combine we used in this project – a little Sampo combine with a header unit of only 2m – it would allow more precise yield maps to be created.”

They would also be much lighter, with a lower footprint and Mr Gill added: “The weather can be an issue when farming and provide only small windows for work to be completed. We experienced this with this project.

“Just like everywhere in the UK, we’ve had to adjust our spraying times and harvest times due to the rain. This is part of the reason machines have been getting so much bigger over the years and the need to be able to complete work quickly.

“But, we believe the best solution is that in the future, farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles. These will be able to go out and work in the fields, allowing the farmer to use their time more effectively and economically instead of having to drive up and down the fields.

“But it’s going to take new talent entering the industry to develop the technology. We hope that this project has helped inspire some people and shown them the range of interesting and innovative jobs that are available now in agriculture.”

Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for the industry lead, Precision Decisions, said: “This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now and we’ve done that.

“We set-out to identify the opportunities for farming and to prove that it’s possible to autonomously farm the land, and that’s been the great success of the project.

“We achieved this on an impressively low budget compared to other projects looking at creating autonomous farming vehicles. The whole project cost less than £200k, funded by Precision Decisions and Innovate UK.

“We used machinery that was readily available for farmers to buy – open source technology and an autopilot from a drone for the navigation system.”

And it doesn’t need to be all new. The combine used is 25 years old and performed exactly as it was asked to do.

Mr Abell said: “Our major challenge leading up to harvest was getting the combine ready. We spent a lot of time practising, getting headland turns right and on the day they appeared to be perfect, which was amazing to see.

“The combine drove a lot better than the tractor. We made a bit of a breakthrough with that. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to make the same adaptations to our tractor, so even though we’d practised a rolling team, as a precaution during the actual trial, we didn’t allow the tractor to get too close to the combine to avoid any accidents.

“Throughout the year we’ve been predicting a yield of five tonnes. Looking in the trailer, it looks like we’re not quite there. Our agronomist predicted 4.5 tonnes and it looks like he’s on the money,” he added.

In true student fashion, though, the team now plan to make a ‘Hands Free Hectare’ beer with the spring barley harvested and plan to try it all again, but with a winter crop.