Robots in the vineyards? French inventor hopes so

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CARLTON, Ore. — A shear-wielding contraption billed as the world’s first robotic vineyard pruner put on a show to a rapt audience of winemakers and vineyard managers Monday in the hills above Carlton.

The robot, dubbed Wall-Ye-France by its French inventor, Christophe Millot, moved up and down a long vineyard row, extending its clippered “hand” to make a precise but imaginary cut. (Imaginary because the demonstration vines didn’t need any actual pruning.)

“It can work 12 hours a day and never make a mistake,” said Millot, who on Monday used an iPad to control the robot’s movements. “I have sold 30 of these so far to winemaking clients in France.”

The demonstration comes ahead of this week’s Precision Farming Expo in McMinnville, which features discussions of agricultural uses for pilotless drones, “smart” irrigation systems and other innovations seen by some as integral to the future of Oregon farming.

“In California and some countries, precision ag systems represent an industry that’s just boiling over,” said conference organizer Jeff Lorton, Yamhill County’s economic development director. “We wanted folks up here to see what some of these things can do.”

Millot’s pruner is about the size of a lawnmower and equipped with three cameras as well as software that remembers every cut from season to season. One camera recognizes woody material and tells the robot to move in for the clip. Another, in the shear, guides the procedure itself.

Oregon winemaker Ken Wright, who owns the vineyard used for Monday’s demonstration, said he was impressed by the technology. Pruning, however, isn’t the phase of the winemaking cycle for which he needs a robotic assist.

“I can get by with a crew of about 10 to 15 for pruning because it’s an extended process that takes place over about three months,” Wright said. “Harvest is where we need the help. Needing anywhere from 85 to 100 people in a single day is not unusual and our labor pool is both aging and diminishing.”

Wright paused to consider how big a breakthrough a robotic harvester would be. Not the type of mechanical harvester now in use that shakes grapes so hard they turn into soup, he said, but a light-handed cousin to Wall-Ye-France.

“It would be huge,” he said. “Whoever makes that machine will be a billionaire.”

Millot said he faces the opposite situation in France, where the phenomenon of citizens pitching in to help harvest the year’s grape crop is an honored tradition.

“You will never see these robotic harvesters in my country,” he said. “If there is a future for these devices, it is in the United States and other wine-growing countries.”

Both the harvester and the pruner sell for about $30,000.