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Drone Automation for Agriculture: World’s First Crop Tended Only by Drone, and American Robotics’ Scout

BY Zacc Dukowitz
18 December 2017

Hands Free Hectare has successfully planted, tended, and harvested the world’s very first crop without a single hand ever touching the farming equipment. The effort was accomplished with the use of drones and robot-driven machinery.

The farm where the project was completed is about two and 1/2 acres in size and is located in the U.K. The yield from the effort was 4 and 1/2 tons of barley, and the total cost for the project was $250,000.

World's first harvest by autonomous combine

The automated farm was created in a partnership between Harper Adams University in Shropshire, England, and Precision Decisions, a farming specialist company in York.

Agronomists and engineers used customized tractors and drones to cultivate the barley. For hardware, the team used commercially available agricultural technology coupled with open-source software used in hobbyist drones—the drone software was modified to work with all of the machinery employed, not just the drones.

Tractors and harvesters were fitted with robotic arms controlled by drone software. At first the machines were controlled remotely, and then they were made autonomous, ultimately running without any direct human attention. Using GPS, the machines were able to navigate to specific locations in the farm and perform pre-programmed actions there, like planting seeds or watering.

Hands Free Hectare says the project is not about putting farmers out of work but instead about modernizing their efforts. As they imagine the future, a farmer will oversee a fleet of robots, all performing tasks that previously required intense manual labor by people.

How Were Drones Used in the Hands Free Project?

Drones have been used in agriculture for a while now, but this project was the first time where drones were part of a fully autonomous operation.

So how did they do it?

Drones helped tend the crops at the Hands Free Hectare farm in part by using multispectral imagery to identify where the barley was first starting to emerge from the soil.

Drones with multispectral sensors took aerial images of the field, while smaller machines at crop level took samples to assess what fertilizers to apply, and where. Live camera feeds were used to detect invasive weeds or disease.


Pictured above is what the Hands Free Hectare team calls the “drone barley snatch.” This device uses a kind of clamshell dangling down from the drone to collect barley in order to find out if the crop is ready for harvesting.

Drone software was used to automate all of the farm machinery, but this did come with some complications. It turned out that the autopilot in the drone systems used wasn’t designed to travel in a completely straight line, but simply to get the drone from point A to point B in the most efficient manner.

This meant that if the software hit a rock while operating a tractor, it would navigate around it instead of plowing straight through it, which would lead to squiggly rows of crops instead of straight ones.

To fix this problem, engineers had to adjust the code to produce straighter steering, regardless of the terrain.

We believe that in the future farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles.

– Jonathan Gill, Researcher at Harper Adams University

American Robotics’ Scout

Right on the heels of Hands Free Hectare’s announcement about the first world’s first autonomous crop of barley, American Robotics has launched their ag drone, appropriately called Scout (appropriate since it’s built to scout crops for signs of stress or other potential problems).

Scout is built for automating farm work. It can’t tend crops, like the custom octocopters used by Hands Free Hectare, but it can help a farmer collect all of the data needed to get the maximum yield from their fields.

Full-automation is a key ingredient in the future of precision farming, and we’re eager and excited to finally deliver this capability to our customers.

– Reese Mozer, Co-Founder and CEO of American Robotics

The new American Robotics drone is a self-charging, self-managing system capable of autonomously carrying out daily scouting missions.

According to American Robotics, traditional scouting techniques on farms don’t adequately detect crop stress, and this leads to huge amounts of lost crops that could otherwise be saved.

What’s their proposed solution? Drone scouting automation, via Scout.

Scout autonomously performs:

  • Planning
  • Launch
  • Flight
  • Imaging
  • Landing
  • Charging
  • Data Management
  • Drone Storage

You can literally just leave the drone alone and it will fly missions and deliver data back to you on a regular time table, according to your plans. Once installed within a farmer’s field it requires no manual intervention to plan, fly, or manage.

One interesting thing to note about the Hands Free Hectare project is that drone software seems to be making new kinds of automation possible for other machines, not just drones. We’ve written before about how the development of drone technology has simultaneously pushed the development of A.I. forward (this is something Intel’s CEO spoke about at InterDrone earlier this year). It’s pretty impressive to see new, creative ways that drone technology is helping push other industries forward.

When looking at this technology, it seems like the future will hold a lot less manual labor for humans—if we can get there. There is still a long ways to go from a functioning idea to a scalable, cost-effective solution adopted by the majority of people in any industry. We’ll certainly be curious to see how things develop.

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