From the past to the present, everything about wine has often revolved around how to not only make the tasks on the vineyard less burdensome but also how to achieve the best quality of wine in the most convenient way possible.
Nothing would have made this easier than automation, particularly the invention of robotics. What may have seemed like mere imagination centuries ago is now part of the winemaker’s reality.
Human labor versus automation
Through generations, viticulturists have often depended on personal skills in the growing of grapes as well as their harvesting. Identifying plum grapes that are healthy instead of spoiled is a task that is best handled by the human eye, hand, and judgment. It is nonetheless a painstaking and tedious task when cultivation, pruning, and even harvesting are handled by human labor. The result is a considerable cost for the winegrowers.
Accordingly, the introduction of machines in vineyards has mainly been to meet the needs of wine growing. From the 1950s, machines such as mechanical harvesters were used in grape harvesting. Even so, although mechanical harvesting has lowered costs and led to more yield, they cannot differentiate rotten or unripe grapes from those that are ripe and healthy. Moreover, harvesters are also likely to damage grapes and vines, leaving them undesirable or usable.
The evolution of technology in winegrowing and winemaking
The application of technology in growing grapes and making wine is not new. What is evident, however, is that the recent technological advancements are an indication of how automation can potentially enable winegrowers to improve and maintain their wine quality and integrity. Such innovations have effectively enabled growers worldwide to arrive at well-timed and more calculated choices. Moreover, the labor needed in operations at the winery and the vineyard is reduced. The robotics field has therefore presented next-generation opportunities for vineyards.
Through intuitive and state-of-the-art technology such as machine learning, accurate manipulation, and computer vision, robotic machines suggest an enormous potential of being integrated into a wide range of activities within the framing of grapes, including the monitoring of crops, yield estimation, and even harvesting.
It is worth noting nonetheless that many aspects impact how well robotics can be adopted. Karel Capek, a writer from the Czech Republic, once wrote a poem in 1920 about human-like machines. It is at this point that the term brought was created. It was premised on the European version of compelled labor.
In the Bordeaux region in France, for instance, robots are used in winemaking organically good wine. They independently get rid of weeds and grass located between vines making pesticide use unnecessary. The developers borrowed some lessons from Mars Rovers in enabling the robot to maneuver through the region’s hilly terrain.
The Saint Emilion region is known for observing tradition. Although winemaking dates to the Roman period, the present-day agriculture tools were only imagination at the time. Nowadays, robots are heavily involved in labor-intensive activities in vineyards. An example of such a robot is the Vitirover, a creation of the Saint Emilion company. As a wholly independent lawnmower, the robot uses solar energy to power its function.
Robots in the vineyard mean that mowing can be done without causing damage to the vines. After half a decade of commitment and three million euros, the robot finally entered the market. Through GPI signals, the robot can move around and has been programmed using a smartphone. Apart from mowing vines measuring two centimeters high, the robot can also be left in the vineyard for several weeks. While Vitirover does not replace the weed killer, it is undoubtedly an attractive option to the classical mechanical options that would damage the vines’ stocks and press down the soil.
Ted was a creation of Naio Technologies. As the pioneer mechanical robot for weeding, Ted is designed to offer winegrowers an option to the conventional straddling equipment. Further, because of Ted, winegrowers consume less time than in the past to handle more pressing matters in the vineyard. Launched in 2017, Ted has a central platform that gets to the vine row with modular arches, enabling it to quickly adapt to the vine varieties. Moreover, weeding tools, plows, blades, and even disks are attached to the tool holder equally as a rectangular lift. A better version of Ted was introduced into the market in 2020 to offer winegrowers more solutions to their vineyard needs. Notably, July 1, 2020, saw the Ted robot’s trials commence.
The connection between the winemaking industry and climate change is equally one that cannot be overlooked. Although the winemaking industry is among the oldest modern sectors, it faces a climate change crisis that poses significant threats to its future viability in certain regions. Embracing robotics is a timely undertaking because new technologies are efficient in handling unpredictable conditions. Robots enabled with artificial intelligence are considered by most, therefore, as crucial in mitigating the impact of fluctuating temperatures, drought, and harvesting times. Robotics not only allows for data collection but also predicts data in a comparatively better way than any human oenologist. They are perhaps what the wine world needs the most in combating tomorrow’s climate.
The VineScout is among the robots that have been created to address the winegrowers’ challenges in the Europe region. This robot is heavily drawn from the VineRobot, its predecessor. Half of the wine supplied to the world comes from Europe. Even so, the socioeconomic impact of inconsistent wine quality has inspired some of the robotic works of persons such as Rovira Mas. Notably, there is a higher risk of losing reputation when no guarantee is given to repeatability. Due to high costs, such risk is usually high when vineyard data is sampled meagerly.
Therefore, there is a potential for cost-efficient sample-size robots to be industrialized and marketed with the use of robots. What would take a winemaker several weeks to gather and analyze is done in a much lesser period. One of the areas where the robot has been helpful is calculating harvesting time and measuring nitrogen and water levels in the vine levels. Notably, having more filed data would be more helpful in enabling wine growers to irrigate their vines, thus saving on water. Additionally, growers who rely on fertilizers or pesticides can do so in a precise manner while tracking results.
The VineScout results from seven years of working closely with the final users. No wonder the robot exhibits a wide range of features as demanded by the end-users. One thing that distinguishes the VineScout from other scouting robots is its ability to sense an environment with plants and canopy properties within high proximity, obtaining massive data regarding variables on plant vigor and even water status. It is essentially whose conception originated from the vineyard itself. In meeting its functions, VineScout relies on a wide range of tools in data collection, including multispectral cameras, spectral reflectance sensors, radiometer sensors, and infrared radiometer sensors. Once it has collected and analyzed the data, it focuses on its final objective, which is a recommendation for the irrigation and differential harvesting schedules.
There is no telling how far the invention of vineyard robots will go. What is certain, however, is that the future of winegrowing and winemaking will increasingly revolve around robots. So far, their impact has been overwhelmingly positive. It is an affirmation, therefore, that the robots’ next-generation opportunities are enormous and highly welcome.