Autonomous Robots Plant, Tend, and Harvest Entire Crop of Barley

This is as autonomous as farming gets, without any humans having to get themselves dirty, or even go outside

3 min read
Autonomous Robots Plant, Tend, and Harvest Entire Crop of Barley
Photo: Hands Free Hectare

Agriculture is no stranger to autonomy. Tractors were among the first commercial autonomous vehicles, and there’s a huge market for drones packed with sensors that can help farmers make more informed decisions. The problem, though, is that farming is still work for humans. There’s still dirt, early mornings, dirt, more dirt, and a lot of hard work that involves some extra dirt. All this dirty-ness makes farming an ideal target for robots, especially since farms also offer repetitive tasks in a semi-constrained environment. At Harper Adams University, they’re taking the farm autonomy idea very seriously: Seriously enough that they’ve managed to plant, tend, and harvest an acre and a half of barley using only autonomous vehicles and drones.

During the Hands Free Hectare project, no human set foot on the field between planting and harvest—everything was done by robots. This includes:

  • Drilling channels in the dirt for barley seeds to be planted at specific depths and intervals with an autonomous tractor;
  • Spraying a series of fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers when and where necessary;
  • Harvesting the barley with an autonomous combine.

Modern farming is much more complicated than just dropping some seeds on the ground and then coming back later for tasty food; the amount and composition of the pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers, and even the timing of the final harvest, depends on a data-driven understanding of the state of the crop. To make these decisions, robot scouts (including drones and ground robots) surveyed the field from time to time, sending back measurements and bringing back samples for humans to have a look at from the comfort of someplace warm and dry and clean. 

The automated harvest took place just a few days ago, after samples confirmed that the barley was dry enough. This video shows the first test cut, and the entire harvest took about six hours:

Overall, the field produced 4.5 metric tons per hectare, which is significantly less than the average of 6.8 metric tons per hectare that you could expect from conventional (human-intensive) farming methods. The students involved in the Hands Free Hectare project also suggest that this was probably “the most expensive hectare of barley ever,” with an overall budget of £200,000 from the U.K. government. Moonshots like this are understandably expensive, though, and since a huge chunk of that money went to capital costs (like buying a tractor and a harvester), the next crop will be vastly cheaper.

While it’s possible that at some point there might be significant labor savings by fully automating farming like this, there are lots of other, more immediate benefits. With fully autonomous farm vehicles, you can use a bunch of smaller ones much more effectively than a few larger ones, which is what the trend has been toward if you need a human sitting in the driver’s seat. This means higher precision, minimal soil compaction, cost savings, and increased flexibility to deal with mechanical breakdowns. Without the need for daylight, you could also keep a farm active 24/7 with a very small human workforce just there (or even checking in remotely) in a supervisory capacity.

Farming robots are only going to get more affordable and efficient, and our guess is that it won’t be long before fully autonomous farming passes conventional farming methods in both overall output and sustainability

Robots are only going to get more affordable and efficient at this sort of thing, and our guess is that it won’t be long before fully autonomous farming passes conventional farming methods in both overall output and sustainability. Small mobile robots or distributed sensor systems could constantly monitor crops in a way that would be impractical for human workers, feeding data into a system that could provide (for example) plant-by-plant recommendations for chemical treatments that a location aware spraying system could then dispense. And with robots like DeepField’s weed-puncher and even Tertill ready to help out as much as they can, person-free precision farming seems like an increasingly viable way to help keep the world fed.

The Hands Free Hectare team is already looking forward to their next winter crop, and in the meantime, they are (of course) taking all of that spring barley and turning it into a Hands Free Hectare beer.

[ HFHa ] via [ The Times ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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