The age of automated machines in landscaping is nigh, Greg Rhodes discovers, but there are some hurdles to surmount before we go hands-free without risk or worry
Across the expansive acres of Harper Adams University, automated machines are growing the UK’s first arable crop remotely, without operators in the driving seat or agronomists on the ground.
The future is ringing out loud and clear in agriculture as manufacturers and suppliers clamour to operate at the cutting edge of mechatronic and robotic technology.
The University continually attracts sector suitors willing to fund, donate equipment and support research into ways machinery can do without drivers and operators. Such is the momentum of change that its application into the sports and amenity sectors is a formality surely.
Yes, we already have robotic mowers but here we’re talking wholesale technology transfer to embrace tractors, sprayers, diverse turf machinery and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Through its Hands Free Farm, Hands Free Hectare and National Centre for Precision Farming initiatives, the University has become a leader in the drive towards remotely operated and automated technology, working closely with partners to help roll out tomorrow’s world.
Mechatronics researcher Jonathan Gill, who holds a B.Eng in Robotics and Automated Systems and is a UAV pilot, has just finished a hectic week harvesting this year’s crop.
He’s pretty sure how the future is shaping up and big isn’t necessarily beautiful. “Smaller vehicles are less challenging and safe by design,” he states, a judgment that’s prompted by extensive hands-on experience in the field.
With this technology, “things don’t scale up in agriculture”, he adds, and believes the same will apply in sport and amenity. Multiples of smaller units are his thinking rather than fewer, larger ones.
Kit trialled at Harper Adams could find application in groundscare. Syngenta and other partners tested a system of hyperweeding to selectively identify and irradiate weeds within a crop using “hyperspectral imaging, destructive tracking lasers and precision spraying”.
The Synergy project brief was to investigate, develop and evaluate a framework for “platooning of closely spaced autonomous vehicles”.
Autonomous compact tractors
Iseki is due to begin work at Harper Adams to explore use of their autonomous compact tractors (up to 48 hp) for grounds maintenance duties – “on golf courses and football pitches for example,” says Jonathan, following their successful application in the University’s agricultural setting over the last four years.
Such driverless vehicles currently have the `fail-safe` of an operator overseeing their activity within visual distance, he explains.
“Tractors powered between 90 and 300 hp operate in standard agriculture,” he continues, “but multiple, smaller machines cause less compaction [a factor vital in sportsturf maintenance] and are easier to automate.”
Precision spraying is not only key in tending crops but also when applying treatment liquids on sports surfaces, amenity settings and aquatic environments.
The Amazone unit operating at Harper Adams is one of the first machines undertaking remotely operated spraying, Jonathon reveals. However, he leaves nothing to chance on safety grounds. “I am PA2 certified, which allows me to ensure safe application, just in case, and I am always in the vicinity when the sprayer’s in use.
“It’s smart enough to only spray within a pre-set boundary and dosage rates are set only at boom width although there is single nozzle control. Certainly the sprayer could be applied to sportsfields, along with the appropriate tractor.”
Working with Autonomous Spray Systems on their R150 autonomous spray robot, the University trialled the electrical vehicle in March on its Hands-Free Hectare field, during one of the wettest weeks of the year.
“The spray tank was filled with 100 litres of liquid, fresh batteries dropped in and a 3m wide grid spray pattern programmed ready to go,” the company explained.
“The soil type is `Soilscape 18’ and described as slowly permeable, seasonally wet, slightly acid, rich loamy, clayey soil,” it continued. A conventional tractor would not have been able to have been used because it would have caused too much damage. At just 300 kg fully loaded, the R150 “barely left a mark”, nor was the steering thrown by the slippery surface, the company added.
The McConnel flail is also proving its worth, controlling weed growth across the University’s grounds since the manufacturer supplied a unit for long-term evaluation, Jonathan says.
Remote controlled machines
One of the main constraints in developing automated and remotely controlled machines and equipment is generating a system that guarantees to stop moving when it confronts an obstacle such as a human being.
“The solution is only a couple of years away, hopefully,” Jonathan says, as only when machines have that intrinsic safety built in can they be let loose in the public domain, where people may be walking along a footpath across a golf course or parkland.
Since 2017, the Centre has also focused on operating, designing and programming drones and their associated control systems and role within agriculture.
Commanding “massive potential for seeding and spraying in agriculture”, says Jonathan, drones will quickly attract keen eyes as a ready method of materials and liquids application in sport and amenity.
A two-day demonstration of 26 kg drones on www.cerealsevent.co.uk in June proved a resounding success, he reports, but there’s a hitch. “We’d love to work with them to their true capability but under the Chemicals Regulation Division of HSE rules, no drone can apply any active ingredient, whatever the sector,” Jonathan states. He’s lobbying MPs and government in the hope of modifying these regulations, he adds, but that’s still work in hand.
There’s one thing the years of testing hands-free machinery has told him though. “The age of automation is coming.” And quickly, it seems.