The Hands Free Farm team welcomed Countryfile to film the piece this August, as they worked to complete the first full harvest on the farm, on the university estate near Newport.
The 35-hectare Hands Free Farm is the successor of the multi-award winning Hands Free Hectare, which started in 2016 with the aim to be the first in the world to grow, tend and harvest a crop without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. The three-year-long project is run in partnership between Harper Adams and Precision Decisions, along with the UK division of Australian precision agriculture specialist, Farmscan AG.
The programme followed three team members – principal investigator and Harper Adams senior lecturer Kit Franklin, mechatronics and UAS researcher for Harper Adams, Jonathan Gill, and Martin Abell, operations manager at Precision Decisions and Hands Free Farm project manager – to examine both the history of the project, and how they fared tackling this year’s harvest.
Viewers were told how the trio – and the wider HFHa team – were the first in the world to plant, grow and harvest a crop using only drones and autonomous vehicles on the hectare in 2016.
Kit said: “I came to Harper Adams, where I studied agricultural engineering, because I wanted to design and develop the next generation of machines. But whilst I was here, I gained some new perspectives on farming, and I started to feel that farm machinery had got too large. So my aim through the work we do here is to reduce the scale of farm machinery.”
Countryfile presenter Steve Brown was shown meeting the team as they made their final preparations, to learn more about both the machinery they were using and their plans for that day’s harvest.
He said: “The lads have programmed this dinky tractor and combine to work alongside each other in the field – and their lightweight size is kinder on the soil than some of those bigger boys.”
Jonathan said: “By having smaller machines, physically compacting on the ground, it means there’s a lot less physical metal just driving around over the field. We’re hoping that the capabilities of having much smaller, multiple machines is a lot more efficient.”
Later in the programme, viewers were shown how the machines tackled their first full-scale wheat harvest on the Hands Free Farm – with Steve, farm contractor Fraser Moss and Harper Adams student – and harvest veteran – Eleanor Gilbert looking on.
Steve described the technology as "amazing" and fantastic – but wondered how some might feel watching a harvest without any drivers.
The Hands Free Farm team have emphasised that their work is not about taking jobs away from the sector, but rather about changing the jobs that farmers do as they adapt to the future.
This was something Eleanor picked up on as she watched the machines do their work, and she told Steve: “I might keep my tractor I’ve got at the minute, just in case – but I think it’s more that we’ll have a change in our skill set. Rather than sat on a tractor all day, we might have to control tablets and swarms of little robots.”
Steve added: “Eleanor is spot on. That is the dream.
“Even though this little combine cuts a third less than a bigger machine, if you had a fleet of them working together, you’d finish this field in no time.”
At the end of the day, the team were pleased with their work – despite one technical hitch in communication between the combine and tractor, which they were able to fix for the rest of the harvest.
Jonathan told Steve: “To be able to do something, from a single hectare, now to a farm – and it’s come a long way – I’m really proud.
“My heart has swollen loads today by being able to showcase this.”
To watch the BBC Countryfile harvest special visit https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0010kl6/countryfile-harvest-special