Robocrop: Growing barley with robots and drones

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Media captionRobocrop: The tractor sowing crops with no one at the wheel

A team at Harper Adams University are trying to grow and then harvest a field of barley using only robots and drones. If they succeed it will be a world first and we're following their progress.

Last time we watched as the team from Harper Adams started to prepare for this year long experiment.

They were using a small robot, not much bigger than a toy car, to refine the steering system they wanted to use.

But at that point they were still waiting on their tractor to be delivered and couldn't find a suitable combine harvester.

Since then things have moved on pretty quickly with triumphs and also some sleepless nights.

Huge achievement

A tractor was sourced and fitted with the team's self-driving technology.

The Hands Free Hectare team - Kit Franklin, Jonathan Gill and Martin Abell - have managed to spray off the weeds on their field and then successfully plant the barley using a compact seed drill that was actually designed for use in vineyards.

Image caption The robot tractor rolls the field of newly planted barley and drives itself up and down the hectare.

The hectare itself is now surrounded by a safety fence and only the machines are allowed inside. Well, that's the theory.

In practise the safety system on the robot tractor has proved a bit over zealous.

It has shut the tractor engine down on a couple of occasions which meant the team had to go into the field to restart the machine.

To avoid even this limited access to the field in the future it's hoped to get a remote starter for the tractor.

Nevertheless all this is a huge achievement.

It is extraordinary to watch a tractor happily rolling a field of barley with no one at the wheel.

It's one of the points of this experiment to show you don't need to spend millions on bespoke cutting-edge tech to do all this but that you can instead grow and harvest a cereal crop using affordable, off-the-shelf parts and software.

Of course the team now have a growing crop to worry about.

Image caption Martin Abell in the field side “mission control” keeps an eye on the robot tractor.

For a team who has spent a lot of time focussed on machinery this is a whole new headache.

They've got some high-tech solutions to familiar farming problems, using drones to keep hungry pigeons away for example.

But soon they'll have to work out how to get pictures and samples from the centre of the hectare for the agronomist to study... all using robots and drones of course.

Making beer

It has been a bit of a scramble but now the team have the seed in the ground and a few weeks to focus on their next really big mechanical challenge.

And that's to fit their driving system to the combine harvester they've managed to source.

And at the end of all this the hope is to use the barley to make beer.

Which I am heavily hinting should borrow a brilliant idea from our office and be labelled "Robocrop".