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An Iseki tractor tows a seed drill autonomously, with a drone controller in the foreground.

An Iseki tractor tows a seed drill autonomously, with a drone controller in the foreground.

Photographer: Jamie Hawkesworth for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Robot Tractors Are Coming, Just as Soon as We Crush a Few Bugs

A plucky team from a small English agricultural college tackles one of the hardest challenges in tech.

One day in April, I wandered across a field in the English county of Shropshire, in search of a robot tractor. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, rain came in squalls, and a line of oak trees overlooked the cultivated ground. Awaiting me was Kit Franklin, a 32-year-old engineer dressed in the traditional garb of British agriculture: checked shirt, heavy jacket with corduroy collar, tweed cap. Behind Franklin, a compact blue tractor made by the Japanese manufacturer Iseki & Co. was driving up and down, towing a set of metal discs that tilled the soil and a Cambridge roller, a bank of metal rings that roll over the dirt crumbling clods and compressing and leveling the surface. The driver’s seat was unoccupied. The plan was to plant that day, Franklin said, “but we’ve got a lot of trash in this field”—organic trash left over from a previous crop, that is—so one tractor would be burying that instead.

In 2017, he and a small team at Harper Adams University, an agricultural school in rural England, became the first farmers in the world to cultivate a field from planting to harvest without a human setting foot on the land. They called it the Hands Free Hectare, as in the metric unit that’s 100 meters (328 feet) long and wide, or about 2.5 acres in area. The first year, Franklin’s team grew 4.5 metric tons (9,921 pounds) of spring barley, followed by 6.5 metric tons of winter wheat in 2018. Some of the spring barley made its way into flavored gin and beer; some of the wheat, into flour for pizza.