Sun, Sep 30, 2012 - Page 14 News List

Wall-Ye V.I.N. robot to help wine growers

By Suzanne Mustacich  /  AFP, MACON, France

The Wall-Ye V.I.N. robot works in a vineyard near Chalon-sur-Saone, France, on Sept. 13.

Photo: AFP

A new vineyard worker is looking for a job in France. White with red trim, 50cm tall and 60cm wide, 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 the labor they need.

It takes on labor-intensive chores likes pruning and de-suckering — removing unproductive young shoots — while collecting valuable data on the health and vigor of the soil, fruit and vine stocks.

Sales demonstrations of the 20kg robot are about to begin.

Wall-Ye draws on tracking technology, artificial intelligence and mapping to move from vine to vine, recognize plant features, capture and record data, memorize each vine, synchronize six cameras and guide its arms to wield tools.

An in-built security mechanism is 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 said.

“If that happens, the hard drive self-destructs and the robot sends a message to the winegrower: ‘Help!’” he said.

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,” Millot said.

It took three years to do so.

“Honestly, it was thousands of hours of work for the two of us — weekends and nights,” said 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,” Millot said.

Demos using a prototype have already sparked a buzz in winemaker circles.

Excited vintners have rung up Millot with a list of tasks they’d like to delegate.

“Every winegrower asks for different things,” the inventor said. “In Alsace, for example, they wanted de-suckering with a simple knife to clean up the tops of the Gewurztraminer.”

The price tag for the Wall-Ye robot is set at 25,000 euros (US$32,000), the same as a medium-size car.

“Which isn’t bad considering it works day and night, even Sundays, doesn’t take holidays or stop for a snack,” Julien said.

“If I have the choice between the robot and the employee, I’ll take the robot — it’s less expensive and less trouble,” said 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,” she said.

And what of concerns the robot could destroy jobs at a time when French unemployment stands at 3 million?

“Obviously this means we’ll cut the job for vineyard pruners, but we’re creating jobs for someone who has gone to school and who will build, maintain and improve the robots,” Julien said. “And we’re going to keep the manufacturing in France.”

Wall-Ye is one of a handful of similar projects under development in the wine world. Both California and New Zealand are developing intelligent vision-based pruning robots.

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