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Grape picking robot will prune like a pro

posted 22 Oct 2012, 02:44 by Mpelembe   [ updated 22 Oct 2012, 02:45 ]

A French engineer is offering wine-growers an efficient way to harvest their grapes without breaking their back - a robot designed to prune and pick grapes for them. While the robot is still a work in progress, wine growers who've seen it are drinking to its potential.

MACONFRANCE (OCTOBER 12, 2012) (REUTERS) -  It's a novel vineyard helper with no qualms about laborious tasks or working overtime - a robot that's designed to prune vines - and it's set to give human grape-pickers a run for their merlot.

With four wheels and two metal arms, the 50 by 60 centimetre (20 by 23 inches) robot called Wall-Ye (pron: Wall-Yee) is fitted with six web cameras, a GPS (global positioning system), and the ability to drive between grapevines, test the soil and check the grapes.

With a little more programming, the robot will be able to prune up to 600 vines per day, says its inventor Christophe Millot, a French engineer who has worked on the project for the past three years.

"The robot will adapt itself to the vines, like the human being does. It's very simple: when I designed the robot, I took measurements of myself, of the width of my shoulders, the length of my arms, to reproduce the same movements that we make. The difference is that it's on wheels, which is more interesting. A human being has to bend to prune the vines or sometimes move on a trolley, so I found it was useless to build something tall that would have had to be lowered, because it would use more energy," Millot told Reuters Television.

Millot got the idea when wine-growers complained they were always short-staffed. He designed the robot as a vineyard assistant that can carry out tedious energy-consuming tasks that winemakers would not ask of part-time helpers, but which they complain of never having time to do themselves.

For the moment its functions are limited to less complicated tasks like checking temperature and counting the number of "missing" vines, those which have died during the season.

"Those who look for workers are unable find to find the, or they get seasonal workforce who they have to train each year. On the contrary, the robot, once it has been trained, the following year after it will be able to prune again, etc. So they (the winemakers) tell themselves: at least this one will be permanent," said Millot.

Wine-maker Claire Gazeau-Montrasi said she would welcome a robot that took care of back-breaking and boring tasks. "Imagine that in a 6.5 hectare plantation, there are 45,000 wine stocks. It will be able to remember each wine stock, it will be able to count the number of missing wine stocks, and eventually it may help analyse the maturity of the vines before the harvest. It may help to observe the strength of the vines depending on changes that made on the soil the previous year. It helps in a whole range of observation tasks that as winemakers we don't have time to do," Gazeau-Montrasi said.

The robot is still in its experimental phase and not a finished product. In a demonstration it moved through vineyards but was unable to prune vines effectively. But Millot hopes to convince winemakers to invest in a robot of their own. As harvest season approaches, he hopes to sell a fully functional robot that prunes and picks grapes for 25,000 euros (33,000 USD).

Gazeau-Montrasi says it's a promising concept, but one that would weigh heavy on the pocket.

"Suppose such a robot was bought by a group of winemakers, it would be profitable. A domain like ours could not afford an device like this one but if we got together with other winegrowers, we could," she said.

Ten clients have already placed their orders, Millot said, and three robots will soon be delivered to buyers in the south of France. Intelligent camera-equipped pruning robots like Wall-Ye are also being developed in countries like the United States and New Zealand.

The grape-picking season is coming to an end, but Millot believes that by next year's harvest time his prototype will be complete and his order book will be full - a prospect to which, he's happy to raise a glass.