Sunday, September 23, 2018

World-first Hands-Free Hectare project completes second harvest

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Crops

A UK team of researchers has successfully grown and harvested a second crop without human intervention using an autonomous combine harvester – unloading grain on the move for the first time using robots.

Funded by the AHDB, the world-first Hands-Free Hectare project by Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions grew a crop of winter wheat – improving theiry and field coverage, ultimately leading to a more competitive yield.

Drilling misses fell from 2.82% in the first year of the project to 0.35% this year – helping the team achieve a respectable overall yield of 6.5t/ha despite a late drilling and busy schedules. But the key achievement was unloading on the move.

Mechatronics engineer Martin Abell said: “Last year, we tried an unload on the move, but we weren’t able to get out tractor close enough to the Sampo combine because of the accuracy issues we were experiencing with the control systems at the time.

Enhanced autopilot

“We have continued to make improvements to our system on the tractor, including adding an auto-start so we can start it remotely if required. We enhanced the autopilot in time for drilling which led to improved driving accuracy and therefore an increased field coverage.

“Thanks to these improvements, this year, we were also able to run the rolling team, unloading grain from the combine into a trailer behind our tractor which was running alongside it, which makes the harvest process far more efficient and quicker to complete.”

Steered by remote control to ensure it got on to the right line, the tractor then drove itself to within a 5cm accuracy. The combine ran autonomously throughout the cutting, and once again completed the headland turns without a problem.

Next steps

The Hands-Free Hectare project started in October 2016, drilling a crop in May 2017, harvesting it later that September, and then turning everything round ready to plant the wheat for a second growing season in November 2017.

Mechatronics researcher Jonathan Gill said the plan now was to plant a cover crop. “This will protect the land as we use it as a test space while we continue to improve our technology, which we haven’t been able to do while growing cereal crops in the field.”

The team will also be working to overcome a number of technological challenges. These include getting the tractor to drive itself from the shed to the field.

Mr Gill said: “We plan to integrate technology from self-driving cars and will need to get the tractor interacting with its surroundings, including, for example, the gate so that it opens and closes when the tractor enters the hectare.”

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