Drones, once thought of as tools for war, are now pretty commonplace in parks, beaches or anywhere in public. More and more tech entrepreneurs see the economic value in these tiny autonomous aircraft. For example, over two million recreational drones were sold last year worldwide.
Now, thanks to a period of normalizing drones to the public, these gadgets are helping out in a number of different commercial uses. Delivery drones make sense; Amazon continues to perfect its drone systems. But farming drones? That's what one team of researchers decided to do, and they found unexpected success.
Innovative Hands-Free Farming
One collective using drones in an innovative way is Harper Adams University, and their three engineer team behind “Hands-Free Hectare (HFHa),” an agricultural project that involves zero human involvement and relies solely on drones and autonomous vehicles to carry out the requirements for growing and harvesting an entire crop of spring barley.
The project, led by agricultural engineer lecturer at Harper Adams, Kit Franklin was launched last October and is intended to address the problem of machinery in farming within the UK.
"Over the years agricultural machines have been getting bigger increasing work rates. This has suited the UK's unpredictable climatic working windows and reduced rural staff availability. But with these larger machines, we are seeing a number of issues, including reduced soil health through compaction which hinders plant growth, as well as reduced application and measuring resolution, critical for precision farming, as sprayer and harvesting widths increase," said Kit Franklin in a press release.
With this in mind, Franklin and his team began brainstorming ways to implement automation into farming in a way that would one day make bulky machinery obsolete.
"It's not about putting people out of jobs; instead changing the job they do. The tractor driver won't be physically in the tractor driving up and down a field. Instead, they will be a fleet manager and agricultural analysts, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops." continued Franklin.
How did they do it? The first step was outfitting a tractor to drive itself, it was fitted with an autopilot system used in drones and was run entirely on GPS following a pre-determined route mapped out by the researchers and their partner Precision Decisions.
“The waypoints are digital GPS markers created using our software that we have positioned at the ends of the field for the tractor to navigate to; like a more advanced version of dot-to-dot,” explained Martin Abell, the project’s industry partner from Precision.
The tractor was also able to drill, roll and spray the soil using GPS. During growth, the team sent out a robot scout to take plant and soil samples to determine disease and weed levels in mission control.
“This has enabled me to ask the team to pick certain plants and check specific areas for disease levels and crop growth stages.”
After all that hard work, it's finally ready for harvest. The team announced this week that the crop is prime for picking.
Kit Franklin told the Scotsman in an interview, “The crop has done really well; it’s nearly matured and looking like it’s going to yield quite well.”