AN ENTIRE cover crop has been successfully drilled using a driverless control system, marking the next step forward for the Hands Free Farm project.

The HFF project is an upscaling of the award-winning Hands Free Hectare feasibility study, run by Harper Adams University, Precision Decisions, Farmscan AG and the Agri-EPI Centre, which was the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a hectare of crop without a driver in the seat or agronomists on the ground.

What is underway now is a three-year long project working on 35 hectares – and by its end, the team hope to have a fleet of autonomous small vehicles working in swarms which can be operated from the farm office, ready for commercialisation.

At the outset of the upscaled project, the original plan for year one had been to drill two winter crops and a spring crop across its five fields. However, due to the poor winter weather, winter drilling was postponed in the hope that it would all be done in spring.

These plans were disrupted with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing. The team had prepared to start drilling before March 27, the day Her Royal Highness Princess Anne was due to visit the project, but on March 23, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the lockdown of the United Kingdom.

However, the HFF team were not deterred, and continued to work on the project from their individual homes, getting ready to drill when restrictions were relaxed – which they have now done, successfully drilling two of their fields with the cover crop, while comfortably abiding by social distancing guidance.

Senior agricultural engineering lecturer, Kit Franklin, said: “Although drilling a cover crop wasn’t the original plan, nor even plan B or C, it will be good for the soils. It should also help the fields be flatter and more forgiving next year.

“This drilling has still provided a useful learning process; we’ve seen that the system is better than ever before and that we’ll be able to analyse the drilling performance when the crop emerges. This will enable us to improve the mapping ahead of working on combinable crops next year.”

For the first time, the team drilled the headlands. Operations manager at Precision Decisions, Martin Abell, said: “The drill lifted a little too early on entry into the corners, so that’s somewhere we can improve. This happened because we decided to take a conservative approach to corners in the beginning to avoid potential problems caused by pulling the drill through tight angles.”

Callum Chalmers from FarmscanAg added: “We’ve seen how important it is for implement control systems to be flexible and seamlessly adapt for farming conditions this year at HFF.

“It was excellent to see the new control system drilling the cover crop over headlands for the day completely driverless. The row spacings turned out great and we’re looking forward to improving the drill’s corner angle turns for the next run.”

Later this year, the team hope to complete a harvesting operation, on a field that has been drilled with a spring barley crop by the Harper Adams University Farm using conventionally sized manned machines.

“This option allows the testing of the combine harvester in a year when it would otherwise be impossible to work on a combinable crop within the Hands Free Farm,” said mechatronics senior graduate research assistant Mike Gutteridge. “The potential learnings from this are an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.

“However, for us to be able to harvest, we are heavily reliant on specialist components being delivered from international suppliers which may not be possible this year due to the current situation.”

Mechatronics and UAS researcher Jonathan Gill captured footage of the drilling by drone, and explained: “The drone footage has more uses than just social media. It’s able to capture the full picture of our progress, and allows future analysis of our path planning, steering settings and timings for the tooling going in and out in the field. We’ll be able to look back on these and compare and improve if required.”