HydraForce partners with Harper Adams to create Autonomous Hydraulic Solutions

HydraForce has partnered with Harper Adams University, to become part of HandsFree Hectare Autonomous Farming Project, which promises to open doors into a new area of the agricultural industry.

Based at the University’s Campus in Shropshire, Harper Adams’ HandsFree Hectare Farm is thirty hectares in size, and was created in 2016 with the objective of being “the first farm in the world to grow, tend and harvest a crop without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground”. This modern day farm focuses on developing machinery that requires minimal human interaction, and instead using equipment such as autonomous tractors and harvesters, to take the place of traditional machines.

In 2018, HydraForce (HF) was approached by Harper Adams to join the autonomous project, where HydraForce would have complete responsibility for the hydraulic elements of the autonomous tractors. This would later create a partnership between HF and the University, along with the UK division of Australian company, Farmscan Ag – the latter of whom would deliver the Electronic Hardware and Programming Software for the agricultural equipment.

The project was centred around the Steering Manifold System on a small tractor and led by HydraForce’s Senior Technical Support Engineer - Romain Zanini, supported by the rest of the Technical Support and Applications team at HydraForce.

“The idea of this project was to look towards the future of agriculture where there won’t be a requirement for large tractors,” explains Romain. “Instead, there will be a fleet of smaller vehicles which will work in sync, to carry out a specific task. This will bring many benefits to the agricultural industry, including increased safety (due to reductions in accidents and environmental damage), as well as improvements in soil compaction, seed success, and harvests. It will also prepare the industry for possible changes in future legislation.”

When designing the tractor’s steering manifold, the HF team were able to produce a schematic design for the machine which was returned to the University within a week of their enquiry.

“The autonomous drive of the tractor still allows the steering wheel to be driven manually by a human, where necessary,” continues Romain, “such as when the machine travels from farm to field – as it remains a legal requirement for tractors to be manually driven on public highways. The settings can then be easily changed back to autonomous drive, for use in the field.”

HydraForce’s SP10-57F Proportional Solenoid Valve was one of the components incorporated into the schematic to improve responsiveness and precision, allowing the machine to stop in an emergency, avoid obstacles and drive well on rough terrain. This same valve was then extended to two other tractors of different sizes, which were all delivered promptly for use on the farm.

“HydraForce’s expertise and rapid prototyping proved invaluable in helping us to get the tractors driving themselves within our tight time constraints,” said Mike Gutteridge, Senior Ag-Tech Engineer at Harper Adams (HA) University.

“Their ongoing support has meant that we were able to continually improve our performance from season to season, enabling us to successfully deliver on this challenging project.”

HydraForce’s involvement in the Handsfree Farm Project, also extended to a Combine Harvester, where HF provided a hydraulic solution for a Header Height Control, working together with HA Engineering Undergraduate Students to provide a complete solution package, as part of their final year project. Here, HydraForce incorporated a group of line bodies to provide the hydraulic support for the function - which has since led to an effective and cost-efficient solution for the machine.

“What made this project so successful was that following the initial enquiry from Harper Adams, we were able to use our applications knowledge and experience, to respond quickly to the university with suggestions and options,” explains Justin Rock, Technical Support Manager at HydraForce.

“We provided options that capitalised on the flow and met their requirements – from our use of existing technologies and application knowledge. Even when the initial hydraulics were provided, we continued to respond quickly and provide ongoing support with fine-tuning and testing in the field – working together as a team to carry out the project.”

The European HydraForce team, including Romain Zanini, Justin Rock, and European Applications Engineering Manager - Markus Bissbort, attended an Open Day at the HandsFree Hectare Farm last September, which showcased the autonomous project. The event was open to both Partners, and other people from the industry who had a direct interest in Farming and Autonomy.

Looking forward, the HydraForce team have been invited back to present other Smart Solutions to the University, which has the potential to open doors to new projects with Harper Adams and the HandsFree Hectare Farm in the future.

We look forward to seeing what the future brings for HydraForce in this new area of agricultural expertise.