News: wine robot
A new vineyard worker is looking for a job in France. He has four wheels, two arms and six cameras, prunes 600 vines per day and never calls in sick.
The Wall-Ye V.I.N. robot, brainchild of Burgundy-based inventor Christophe Millot, is one of the robots being developed around the world aimed at vineyards struggling to find workers.
It takes on chores such as pruning and de-suckering - removing unproductive young shoots - while collecting valuable data on the health and vigour of the soil, fruit and vine stocks.
Sales demonstrations are about to begin and big name French vintners such as Bordeaux's First Growth Chateau Mouton-Rothschild have offered vineyards as a venue for the 20-kilogram robot to put on its show.
Wall-Ye draws on tracking technology, artificial intelligence and mapping to move from vine to vine, recognise plant features, capture and record data, memorise each vine, synchronise six cameras and guide its arms to wield tools.
White with red trim, 50 centimetres tall and 60cm wide, it also has an in-built security mechanism designed to thwart would-be robot snatchers.
"It has a GPS, and if it finds itself in a non-designated vineyard, it won't start. It also has a gyroscope so it knows if it's been lifted off the ground," Millot says.
"If that happens, the hard drive self-destructs and the robot sends a message to the winegrower: 'Help!'"
Millot's inspiration came from a frustrated winegrower, Denis Fetzmann, estate manager at Domaine Louis Latour, while on a tour of his vineyards in France's southeastern Ardeche region.
"He needed to thin the leaves, because the clusters were too big and they didn't dare use a machine - but they couldn't find workers. It was August and everyone was on holiday. I told him I'd make him a robot," says Millot.
That took three years.
"Honestly, it was thousands of hours of work for the two of us - weekends and nights," says Guy Julien, the toolmaker who partnered Millot to manufacture the robot.
"The biggest challenge was to make the cameras understand what they are seeing and how to interpret it," adds Millot.
The price tag for the Wall-Ye robot is set at €25,000, (HK$250,000) the same as a medium-sized car.
"That isn't bad considering it works day and night, even Sundays, doesn't take holidays or stop for a snack," Julien says.
"If I have the choice between the robot and the employee, I'll take the robot - it's less expensive and less trouble," says Patricia Chabrol, owner of Chateau Gerbaud in Saint-Emilion who has seen Wall-Ye at work. "We have robots in factories, robots that take care of the elderly - I think we can do some very high quality work with this vineyard robot."
Labour issues aside, some French growers are unwilling to see robotic pruners industrialise what has historically been a craft-based product.
"Technically it's interesting, but intellectually it's inconceivable. It doesn't fit with my philosophy of making a Saint-Emilion grand cru," says Philippe Bardet, owner of Chateau du Val d'Or.
Many vintners surveyed in a straw poll consider vineyard robots to be an inevitable development.
"We once said we'd never use machines to harvest, now we do," says Fetzmann. "Everything that can be mechanised will eventually be mechanised."