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Robotics on the Vine

Robotics on the Vine

Last month, in the agriculturally rich central valley of California, Vision Robotics planned to test a prototype robotic device for the pruning of grape vines. "It's a highly skilled job," says CEO Derek Morikawa. "The manner in which you prune the vines affects the quantity and quality of the grapes you get in the coming season."

Vision Robotics already builds a number of robots that harvest apples and oranges, but this is its first foray into an area that requires significantly more precision and mechatronic expertise. The $150,000 robot combines computer software, machine vision and robotics to perform the work.

The 2-ton prototype is 15 ft long, 10 ft tall and 9 ft wide. It covers the length of a 6-ft vine in about 45 sec (Morikawa estimates the production version will move three times as fast). Its cameras take pictures of the vine and, in real time, an onboard computer converts that information into a graphical representation of the vine. The computer model then transmits instructions to the robotic pruners. "We developed an engine that incorporates different rules about pruning the vine," says Morikawa. "Different growers have different rules based on age of the vines and the varietal of grape."

The prototype has to be as tall as it is, Morikawa says, because with some trellis methods, stakes can be as high as 8 ft. The time it takes to do the imaging dictates the length of the prototype. "The cameras are six feet ahead of the robotic arms," says Morikawa, "so we can see an entire vine before we make a decision about pruning." The size is typical for agricultural equipment, he says.

Tests are scheduled to take place in Lodi, CA, in a number of vineyards with flat ground. Morikawa says his company will work on a version for pruning grape vines on steep hills, such as those in Tuscany, in the future.

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