From education to employment

Autonomous agriculture wins technological innovation of the year

Host Sandi Toksvig, two employees of Harper Adams University and Jisc's CEO Paul Feldman at the THE awards

Viewed as the “Oscars of higher education”, the awards attract high-calibre entries, showcasing examples of excellence within the higher education (HE) sector in 2018.

Barley by robots

The Jisc award recognises and promotes technological breakthroughs at institutions in products or services that have the potential to significantly enhance the commercial or public sector.

This year, Harper Adams University lifted the trophy thanks to its impressive “Hands-Free Hectare project”. The project proves that it is possible to grow a barley crop without a single person being physically present in the field.

Supported by Innovate UK, researchers worked with Yorkshire Business Precision Decisions to create an agricultural system that uses autonomous vehicles and drones along with a wind-based micro-energy installation to run on-site computing equipment.

The world-first project attracted interest from around the globe, including coverage in Nature and on BBC One’s The One Show. UK government officials took notice, and project leaders reported on the system at conferences as far afield as India. The project proposal was presented as part of researchers’ evidence to a House of Lords committee designed to demonstrate that autonomous vehicles could help to make crop production systems more efficient and sustainable.


The barley crop was harvested in late summer 2017 – and the grain has been made into an exclusive gin, with a beer to follow.

Jisc CEO, Paul Feldman, said:

“Harper Adams’ initiative was seen by the panel as a step change in agricultural practice, a great example of the use of technology to benefit humankind, and a sterling illustration of university/business collaboration. 

“The panel was impressed not only by the application but also by the impact it had around the world, and the way the project team looked to use the development to benefit others globally.

“In society driven by rapidly developing technology, innovation is crucial for the UK’s education and research sectors competitiveness. Our researchers are at the forefront of global science, and continue to positively impact society and economies.   We look forward to seeing how the winning and nominated projects progress, and would like to congratulate all entrants on their impressive work.”

THE editor, John Gill, said:

“At a time when universities face challenges and headwinds, when politics and social attitudes can seem to call into question many of the things that they stand for and hold dear, it is particularly important to champion the values, creativity and dedication of those who live and breathe higher education.

“As ever, our shortlists represent the best of the best, but our judges also reported that this year’s entries were the strongest that they could remember, so all those honoured should be incredibly proud. It’s THE’s great honour to help celebrate their success.”

The full list of this year’s winners and profiles of their winning entries is on the awards website.

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