Field of machines: Researchers grow crop using only automation

A drone equipped with a multispectral sensor was used for collecting data on crop growth.

Story highlights

  • Machines replace human workers in planting, growing and harvesting a barley crop
  • Professor: "Automation is feasible everywhere, but ... it only makes sense in certain situations"

(CNN)A farm in the United Kingdom is the first in the world to successfully plant, tend and harvest a crop without a single person ever setting foot in the field, according to researchers and developers involved in the project.

From sowing the seeds to picking the grain, human workers were replaced with automated machines operated from a control room. The project, called Hands Free Hectare, was completed last month with a yield of 4 1/2 tons of barley, according to news releases.
    The automated farm was a joint venture by Harper Adams University in Shropshire, England, and Precision Decisions, a farming specialist company in York.
    "Previously, people have automated sections of agricultural systems, but funding and interest generally only goes towards one single area," said Kit Franklin, an agricultural engineer on the project.
    Experts agree that automation technology has been available for some time now, but in recent years its implementation has been accelerated by decreasing costs and changing demographics in the workforce.
    An automated tractor worked in the barley field.
    "The rising cost of labor is a huge driver in the field of agriculture technology," explained Matt Nielsen of Autonomous Solutions, a Utah-based company that converts vehicles from manual to robotic control. "It makes sense when you compare the cost of technology to the cost of labor."

    Harbinger of what's possible

    However, there are limitations still to be assessed. For example, fresh fruits and vegetables are more delicate than sturdy grains and may be more susceptible to bruising in a harvest void of human touch.
    There are also social and country-specific considerations. In Japan, for instance, agricultural automation may be a necessity; in India, it could mean unemployment for millions.
    "Technically, complete automation is feasible everywhere, but economically and socially it only makes sense i