Sunday Morning Garden Chat: “A Field Farmed Only By Drones”

A little something for both the gardening and the geeking commentariat. Now, if only they can program the drones to do the weeding… Nicola Twilley, in the New Yorker:

Across the United Kingdom, the last of the spring barley has been brought in from the fields, the culmination of an agricultural calendar whose rhythm has remained unchanged for millennia. But when the nineteenth-century poet John Clare wrote, in his month-by-month description of the rural year, that in September “harvest’s busy hum declines,” it seems unlikely that he was imagining the particular buzz—akin to an amplified mosquito—of a drone.

“The drone barley snatch was actually the thing that made it for me,” Jonathan Gill, a robotics engineer at Harper Adams University, told me recently. Gill is one of three self-described “lads” behind a small, underfunded initiative called Hands Free Hectare. Earlier this month, he and his associates became the first people in the world to grow, tend, and harvest a crop without direct human intervention. The “snatch” occurred on a blustery Tuesday, when Gill piloted his heavy-duty octocopter out over the middle of a field, and, as the barley whipped from side to side in the propellers’ downdraft, used a clamshell dangling from the drone to take a grain sample, which would determine whether the crop was ready for harvesting. (It was.) “Essentially, it’s the grab-the-teddy-with-the-claw game on steroids,” Gill’s colleague, the agricultural engineer Kit Franklin, said. “But it had never been done before. And we did it.”

The idea for the project came about over a glass of barley’s best self: beer. Gill and Franklin were down the pub, lamenting the fact that, although big equipment manufacturers such as John Deere likely have all the technology they need to farm completely autonomously, none of them seem to actually be doing it. Gill knew that drones could be programmed, using open-source code, to move over a field on autopilot, changing altitude as needed. What if you could take the same software, he and Franklin wondered, and make it control off-the-shelf agricultural machinery? Together Gill, Franklin, and Martin Abell, a recent Harper Adams graduate, rustled up just over a quarter million dollars in grant money. Then they got hold of some basic equipment—a small Japanese tractor designed for use in rice paddies, a similarly undersized twenty-five-year-old combine harvester, a sprayer boom, and a seed drill—and connected the drone software to a series of motors, which, with a little tinkering, made it capable of turning the tractor’s steering wheel, switching the spray nozzles on and off, raising and lowering the drill, and choreographing the complex mechanized ballet of the combine…

Hands Free Hectare’s final yield was a couple of metric tons lower than the average from conventionally farmed land—and the costs in both time and money were, unsurprisingly for a pilot project, stratospherically higher. Nevertheless, the team’s experience suggests that drone agriculture offers some substantial benefits. “For starters,” Abell said, “the opportunity for doing the right thing at the right time is much higher with automated machines.” Many of a farmer’s duties are weather-dependent; an autonomous tractor could, for instance, tap into live forecast data and choose to go out and apply fungicide when conditions are ideal, even if it’s four o’clock in the morning.

More important, once the machinery no longer requires a person to sit on top of it, a farmer could deploy a fleet of small tractors to do the same work that he currently does riding one of today’s state-of-the-art, two-story-tall tractors…

Self-driving tractors face many of the same safety issues as self-driving cars, in terms of cybersecurity and liability for accidents, so a good deal more work remains to be done before they will enter widespread use. Gill predicted that the first adopters will be in Japan, where the average farmer is seventy years old. Abell expects that commercial farmers in the U.K. will be automating at least some aspects of their operations within the next five years. The team’s focus, however, is on the even shorter term: first, a much needed vacation; then a new crop (winter wheat) in the ground by the end of October; and, finally, a special beer brewed from their hands-free harvest. “I’m hoping for a festive pint,” Gill said. “We’ll probably sell the rest to fund the project.”

What’s going on in your garden(s), this week?

88 replies
  1. 1
  2. 2
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    What’s going on in my garden? Not much. A lot of clean up. Need to get the cover crop in. Also need to build some more raised beds for the pollinator garden, but that won’t be this week. Gotta start building the greenhouse soon too. Picked up 8 food grade barrels Friday, still need 6 more but the guy has plenty.

  3. 3
    satby says:

    I’m normally neutral about new technology, but I used to live next to fields that those “two story combines” worked and the thought of one of those going rogue is frightening. They’d crush everything in their path.

  4. 4
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Major Major Major Major: Luddites Unite!

  5. 5
    oatler. says:

    Who’s going to buy the commemorative beer? Unemployed, displaced farm laborers?
    Without a penny to my name/To buy a meal for me

  6. 6
    satby says:

    I have to mow the lawn today after work, it was perfect yesterday but I was too tired after work yesterday. I wish it didn’t take so long for the dew to dry off, I could do it before work and come home and chill.
    I also have to clean up the garden beds and start planting the new bulbs that arrived, transplanting the last of the irises still in a planter, and decide what to do with my baby crepe myrtle, because it did really well in its pot over the summer. It was too small to transplant in the yard and it’s still small but double what it was. So in the ground, or into another pot for one more year? Decisions.

  7. 7
  8. 8
    satby says:

    I just realized it’s October first, and I feel like I missed the entire summer! It’s looking like nice weather for the next two weeks, and the market isn’t going to be open on Fridays anymore, so I’ll have two days off a week now. Wonder how much summer I can fit into four days 😊

  9. 9
    rikyrah says:

    Good Morning, Everyone 😄😄😄

  10. 10
    raven says:

    Two weeks until the doggie parade so the boss lady hasn’t been doing much gardening except watering.

  11. 11
    Baud says:

    @rikyrah: Good morning.

  12. 12
    satby says:

    @rikyrah: good morning 🌞

  13. 13
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    From Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others :

    On American Identity, the Election and Family Members Who Support Trump Nicole Chung reflects on the burden of engaging with racism and educating white people, including some in her own family.

    A long read but worth the trip.

  14. 14
    satby says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Just finished that, well worth it.
    Edited to belatedly say thanks for the link! Moar coffee now.

  15. 15
    bemused says:

    I just turned on the tv and see on cnn a Hispanic woman who I believe I’ve seen on msnbc over the weekend but have not caught her name who was livid, spitting fire at a Hispanic man who was a total apologist and toady for Trump attacking the mayor of San Juan. Anyone watch this? Did I hear this right, the Hispanic guy said mayor of San Juan should be ashamed of herself?! I can’t even.

  16. 16
    Bill Wright says:

    From NYC–good morning, all…

    Interesting article in the Times this morning–couple of caveats.
    * I’d chose Medicare over Medicaid for the supplier, since CMMS is already in place and, from my experience seems to be working fine (using the HMO option)
    * There are a whole passel of “IFs”, to be sure. In general, though, using utility theory from microeconomics rather than supply/demand analysis from macroeconomics, the puzzle seems to work in favor of the process…the consumer gets greater utility from the government option…similar or better service for each dollar spent. And I’ll take utility theory any day of the week. Could find the “link” function…so please cut and paste…I use the Brave browser which may be the issue with the “link” function..

  17. 17
    Lapassionara says:

    Good morning, everyone. Trying to keep the new sod alive, since I do not see rain in our future. Going to get another truck load of compost. Just the basics.

  18. 18
    Baud says:


    Trying to keep the new sod alive

    I read that as “son” and thought you seemed awfully blasé about the situation.

  19. 19
    satby says:

    @Lapassionara: water longer than you think it needs. I didn’t put in sod, but my new shrubs are barely hanging on because I underestimated how much water the sandy soil here retains and how much the scant rain provided. I was hitting them with what I estimated was an inch per week equivalent, but the dry soil around leached the water away. Now we’re playing catch-up.

  20. 20
    satby says:

    @Bill Wright: saw your comment last night about the weight loss and improved health, congratulations!

  21. 21
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Baud: As the father of 2 sons I can say that keeping 1 alive is a daily struggle and that eventually you just have to give up and turn them loose on the world with hopes that both the son and the world survive the experience.

  22. 22
    Cermet says:

    In a world where energy means CO2 production these fools create a way to create even more CO2 per acre planted. Exactly, why? Oh, because they can.

  23. 23
    satby says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: agreed. But it goes for daughters too, though I only borrowed other people’s. My bio and foster kids were all boys.

  24. 24
    Baud says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Another reason I made the right choice remaining childless.

  25. 25
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @satby: With daughters tho, the question is whether the father will survive. Thank Dog I didn’t have one.

  26. 26
    satby says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I remember saying to my Danish exchange student, who was 18 and very independent, that her parents sent only 1 child to the US and one child only was what I was sending back. No stowaways.

  27. 27
    OzarkHillbilly says:


    No stowaways.

    OK, I got my laugh for the day.

  28. 28
    satby says:

    And in other gardening news, my neighbor has a beautiful black walnut tree. I’m debating whether it’s worth the work to gather, peel, clean, cure, and shell them.

  29. 29
    satby says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: The best part of parenting is the revenge: she’s a 44year old mother of a pre-teen now.😉
    Edited to add: pre-teen girl. 😂

  30. 30
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @satby: I have long said, grandchildren are a parents revenge.

  31. 31
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    Dunes on Mars, Nasa

    This picture was taken on 24 January 2014 by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The image shows a 1.5km section of crater. Crests of dunes catch the light as the sun rises on a desert scene streaked with early winter frost – the temperature has barely risen above the night-time low of -100C. Nasa, 2014.

    Photograph: Nasa, 2014

  32. 32
    Gin & Tonic says:


    has barely risen above the night-time low of -100C.

    Thanks. I thought it was pretty chilly here this morning, but it wasn’t that bad.

  33. 33
    NotMax says:


    Not as artistically composed, nevertheless a favorite among Mars photos.

  34. 34
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @NotMax: I’ve seen those pics before, pretty cool.

  35. 35
    debbie says:


    Yeah, rain. They’re afraid there won’t be much leaf color this year since there’s been so little rain. Bummer.

  36. 36
    debbie says:


    My revenge has been watching my three brothers raise kids. At one time or another, they’ve each apologized to their parents (in the Great Beyond) for the grief each of them gave them. They had no idea what little shits they were.

  37. 37
    Mathguy says:

    Had an ad for farm machinery pop up on the side bar for this post. Don’t know if I should be amused or creeped out.

  38. 38
    JMG says:

    When they develop drones that can rake and bag leaves, I’ll be interested. Until then…

  39. 39
    germy says:


    On a speech on Friday in Fresno, California, Joseph M. Arpaio, billed on the evening’s program as “America’s toughest sheriff,” delighted local Republicans with his pronouncements. He promised to restart his investigation into the veracity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, suggested he might run for a congressional seat, perhaps the one held by Arizona’s Senator Jeff Flake, and lambasted professional football players for their National Anthem protests, which he called “little Mickey Mouse political games.”

  40. 40
    Baud says:

    @germy: Pardoned but still economically anxious.

  41. 41
    germy says:

    @NotMax: For some reason the Fermi Paradox has been on my mind.

    I tend to go with the “It may be that non-colonizing technologically capable alien civilizations exist, but that they are simply too far apart for meaningful two-way communication” theory.

  42. 42
    germy says:


    Pardoned but still economically anxious

    That might fit on the back of his MAGA hat.

  43. 43
    mezz says:


    I am watching the beginning of All the President’s Men (on Cinemax more or less since the Inauguration) and the thought occurs to me:

    what on earth will it be like when the Short Fingered Vulgarian gives the SOTU this winter?!?!

  44. 44
    Baud says:

    @mezz: He already gave one speech to Congress. Probably will be similar.

  45. 45
    rikyrah says:

    Dolt45 tweeted that the American citizens in Puerto Rico are INGRATES 😠😠😠

  46. 46
    debbie says:


    Maybe one of the Dems will have grown a pair and will shout out, “You lie!” or something even better.

  47. 47
    Baud says:

    @debbie: That would be scandalous.

  48. 48
    debbie says:


    Bet he couldn’t walk out on Fifth Avenue now. He’d be the one to be shot.

  49. 49
    debbie says:


    In a good way.

  50. 50
    Baud says:

    @debbie: Both sides!

  51. 51
    chris says:

    @JMG: If you have a ride-on mower these lawn sweepers work well. Or you could just mulch the leaves and leave them to feed the lawn.

  52. 52
    satby says:


    They had no idea what little shits they were.

    LOL, they never do while they’re young; but if you’ve done any kind of decent job raising them they figure it out. And are pretty appreciative, which is enjoyable.

    I hope you’re feeling better!

  53. 53
    debbie says:

    Dude must have a late tee time. He’s already off and running on Twitter.

  54. 54
    satby says:

    @debbie: is it wrong that I just want him gone and I’m not picky about what accomplishes that as long as it happens?

  55. 55
    germy says:

    Author of a YA novel pushes it to the NY Times bestseller list. For a few hours, anyway.

    The writer is great at networking.


    Still, there may be something to Sarem’s claim that she has been punished for being an outsider. Earlier this week, I got a message from an employee at an independent bookstore in California that had handled one of Sarem’s orders. He’d heard I was working on this story and wanted me to know “how not uncommon” it was for authors and publishers to buy books in bulk in order to boost their rankings. “When the big publishers do this, no one ever finds out,” he wrote, “because it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, the way her thing did.”

    I asked him to elaborate, and he sent back an unsettling note. The only reason his bookstore reports its sales to the Times each week is because occasionally someone will call to ask if it does, and will then buy 60 or 70 books at once. “Selling 70 books at a pop, even at a discount, will turn a sub-par sales day into a ‘sales were up today!’ kind of day,” he said. “Bookselling,” he added, “is a barely head-above-water kind of business.”

  56. 56
    debbie says:


    LOL, thanks. Yesterday was the half-way mark, which seems to help.

  57. 57
    debbie says:


    I try not to think ill of others; instead, I try to keep in mind that karma will get to him. It always does.

  58. 58
    debbie says:


    And the publisher will get screwed with all the returns. What the author did isn’t helpful to the industry he/she depends on.

  59. 59
    chris says:

    The drone barley snatch was actually the thing that made it for me

    Haha, farming for dudebros. Autonomous farming is already in the works. Add drones and you never have to leave the couch!

  60. 60
    germy says:

    @debbie: She bought up copies and gave them away at conventions. She just wanted to be able to call herself a “bestselling author.”

    Unfortunately, the actual book itself was an afterthought. The writer was more focused on fame and fortune.

  61. 61
    Baud says:

    @germy: Maybe if we all set BJ to autorefresh in our browsers, we can be a top 9000 blog.

  62. 62

    @germy: Maybe I should buy copies of my book and give them away on BJ.

    I’m at a con but heading home soon. I heard Joe Haldeman read from a book he’s working on. He writes by hand and had trouble reading his own handwriting.

  63. 63
    germy says:

    @Iowa Old Lady: Good for him for not making his wife type everything up.

    I’m old enough to remember when male writers had typist wives. Ran into more than a few at writers’ groups.

  64. 64
    oldgold says:

    I grew up living in my grandparent’s home. My Grandfather was a gardener. He included me and showed the patience of Job as I trampled his tomatoes and harvested his vegetables before their time.

    When I left for college, he would delay the playing of ‘our garden’ for weeks until I returned home for the summer break.

    In his Will he left me his gardening tools. I use them to this day in West of Eden. And, I have laugh as my Grandson tramples my tomatoes and harvests my vegetables before their time.

    To everything there is a season.

  65. 65
    Nicole says:

    We are off to the northern tip of Manhattan to the Medieval Festival. The community started it in Fort Tryon Park to attract visitors to the park. Now, less than a decade later, 60,000 are attracted to the park for one day. Needless to say, we’re going early. My 7-year-old is attired with plastic sword, wood shield and a Kylo Ren mask.

  66. 66
    debbie says:


    There’s been controversy about the NYT bestseller lists for decades. All these shenanigans undermine that.

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    I can relate to that author. Sometimes I stand in the middle of the store struggling to decipher my shopping list.

  67. 67

    @germy: I suspect his wife does eventually type things up. She was with him.

  68. 68
    frosty says:

    OT Many thanks to the valued commenter last summer who suggested I read Michael Pollan’s Second Nature for the chapter on lawns after I complained about having to mow. I am now wrapping up Omnivore’s Dilemma and I’m looking for a local farm like the Charlottesville one he wrote up where I can get start buying my chicken and eggs.

    Good reads.

  69. 69
    germy says:


    There’s been controversy about the NYT bestseller lists for decades.

    I don’t trust much of their reporting. I’m not surprised their list is questionable.

  70. 70
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    At the Scientific American: More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows

    More firearms do not keep people safe, hard numbers show. Why do so many Americans believe the opposite?

    Kennesaw is proud of its gun law. “Inmates have been picked up on other charges around the area, and they’ve said, ‘No, I would never break in a house in Kennesaw,’” Graydon said. City officials tout that a year after the law was implemented, burglaries in Kennesaw dropped by more than half; by 1985 they were down by 80 percent. “It was a selling point for the town,” according to David McDowall, a criminologist at the University at Albany, S.U.N.Y. The lavish media attention that the law received probably helps: it’s not just that Kennesaw residents have guns; it’s that everyone knows Kennesaw residents have guns. (That said, the rule has never been enforced, and Graydon estimates that only about half of Kennesaw’s residents actually own firearms.)

    But while burglary numbers did drastically decline in Kennesaw after 1981, those statistics can be misleading. McDowall took a closer look at the numbers and noticed that 1981 was an anomaly—there were 75 percent more burglaries that year than there were, on average, in the previous five years. It is no surprise that the subsequent years looked great by comparison.

    A long read, but well worth the breakdown on conflicting studies.

  71. 71
    debbie says:


    Not at all the same thing. This is authors, agents, and sometimes publishers gaming it out.

  72. 72
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @frosty: I don’t know if that was me but I remember commenting in a thread about the book so I’m going to take credit anyway and say, “Your welcome.” ;-)

    Also, I am very humble. Have I told you all how humble I am lately? Very humble.

  73. 73
    gene108 says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    He writes by hand and had trouble reading his own handwriting.

    Gods, I hated it when I couldn’t read my writing, which was often enough considering I had bad handwriting.

    My teachers were champs in trying to decipher what I turned in. Really amazing how many illegible papers they must have had to grade over the years.

  74. 74
    frosty says:

    It may have been you, sounds right based on other comments you’ve made. And yes, we are all well aware of how humble you are. You should be prouder of your humility and shout it from the rooftops!

  75. 75
    Amir Khalid says:

    I’m impressed by Arpaio’s dedication, but mystified by his plans. What leads does he think remain to be investigated?

  76. 76
    germy says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    What leads does he think remain to be investigated?

    I have no idea. He could just be trash talking at this point, trying to rile up the crowd…

  77. 77
    JPL says:

    @Amir Khalid: First step is to gin up his few fans, and then the second step is to raise money for the investigation. He’s a grifter.

  78. 78
    Amir Khalid says:

    Any rating system, like the NYT bestseller list, can be gamed if you know enough about how it works. The only way to defeat this that I can think of is secrecy, but I have no idea how sales data from a representative sample of book retailers across America could be gathered in secret.

  79. 79
    PAM Dirac says:

    Finished my garden chores for the day, well if you call a vineyard a garden. It is about garden size, only about 175 vines in about 100’X70′. Picked and crushed the mourvedre. Pretty good numbers. The weather has been pretty cool around here (MD) and the ripening has been slow and easy, retaining good acidity. This is the first of the reds to be picked. All the whites are picked and fermenting. Next year about this time I should have about 50 bottles of white ready to drink, and about 2 years from now there will be about 60 bottles of red and about 50 bottles of pyment (grapes plus honey).

  80. 80
    debbie says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    They guess who the participating bookstores are. It’s not that difficult, which is why it happens so often.

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    Laura says:

    @rikyrah: Good morning Rikyeah -it’s great to see you smile!

  82. 82
    J R in WV says:


    I see your point.

    But did they create a world with even more energy expended per acre planted?

    If at all, they may have added .01% additional energy use. Strapping a high-end laptop to a combine or tractor is a (tiny) drop in the bucket of large scale agricultural activity.

    And if use of GPS and moisture sensors and other devices and technology provides even a tiny 1% gain in efficiency of the operation of giant agricultural machinery, then there’s a net gain in lowering carbon dioxide emissions.

    Watching any piece of heavy equipment working up close, you can see that hundreds of horsepower, millions of ergs of energy, is being consumed. Watching a person use a laptop… not so much.

  83. 83
    chopper says:

    Gill and Franklin were down the pub, lamenting the fact that, although big equipment manufacturers such as John Deere likely have all the technology they need to farm completely autonomously, none of them seem to actually be doing it

    corn farming at least is pretty close to it already. on most big farms there’s very little human labor, it’s all giant million dollar machines. what’s the point of this, to eliminate a handful of jobs?

  84. 84
    J R in WV says:

    @PAM Dirac:

    Best of luck with the grape juice conversion project. Out in AZ we had some neighbors who drink a lot of wine who decided to put in small grape plantings, after a couple of really big commercial outfits put in vineyards.

    Of course the big question is how good will the wine be? Two-buck Chuck? Even some French wines only pull $8/bottle retail because they’re just that good.

  85. 85
    StringOnAStick says:

    @JPL: Arpio also suggested he might run against Flake; pretty spry for an 85 year old guy! Seriously though, this guy is a grifter and his marks are begging him to take their money.

  86. 86
    PAM Dirac says:

    @J R in WV:
    So far the wine has turned out pretty well. I entered three wines from the 2015 vintage in the county fair last year and got 2 firsts and a second. I’ve also have had some of the local vineyards taste and they have been encouraging. The local pros are very generous with their time and knowledge, so that is part of the fun. The main test though is when my wife says the we shouldn’t share a wine. I’ve gotten a few of those so far. Mainly it is a retirement hobby. I will retire this coming June and the vineyard and winemaking give me a chance to play with pH meters and paper chromatography and even to wear a lab coat :-)

  87. 87
    debbie says:

    @PAM Dirac:

    and even to wear a lab coat

    Yeah, that was Walter White’s initial thought too… . ;)

  88. 88
    PAM Dirac says:

    :-) Reminds me of one of my brothers asking his twin whether what he was doing in Hawaii was legal.
    1: I pay taxes
    2: I didn’t ask that. I asked if what you were doing was legal
    1: I pay taxes.

    Of course the saying in the wine business is the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large fortune, so I don’t think I’m making a very good choice if it is ill gotten gains I’m after.

Comments are closed.