Robot farmers have successfully planted and harvested barley by themselves

Humans have been cultivating plants for some 10,000 years and, for much of that time, we’ve used beasts of burden to help tend the fields. Just last century, humans turned from animal strength to machine power, leading to huge leaps in agricultural efficiency and scale. Over the past few years, farms have deployed emerging technologies like drones and autonomous driving systems to make the farmers’ job even less strenuous — but human hands were still needed throughout the process.

Now, researchers at Harper Adams University and agricultural company Precision Decisions have removed humans from the farm entirely in a project called Hands Free Hectare. From planting to tending and harvesting, no human stepped foot on the acre and a half barley farm in rural England. It was all done by robot farmers.

“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,” Jonathan Gill, one of the researchers involved in the project, said in a statement. “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, which was a little ‘Sampo combine’ with a header unit of only two meters, it would allow more precise yield maps to be created. They would also be much lighter machines.”

Among the tasks assigned to the autonomous vehicles and drones were drilling channels to precise depths for barley seeds to be planted; applying specific amounts of fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers; and, finally, harvesting the crops once they were ready.

“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,” said Martin Abell, from Precision Decisions. “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.”

Although the autonomous work systems were freshly developed for these tasks, the machine used to harvest the barley was 25 years old and still performed better than the tractor used for planting, according to the researchers.

The team plans to repeat the experiment again with a winter crop. But first, they will brew a batch of beer with the spring harvest. Cheers to that!

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