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?