Winemaking may be one of the modern era’s oldest industries, but today many point to climate change as a crisis that may threaten future viability of the wine industry in some regions. Winemakers and grape growers have embraced new technologies to combat conditions that are becoming ever more unpredictable.
Robots equipped with artificial intelligence are seen by some as an essential tool to mitigate the effects of drought, fluctuating temperatures and changes in harvest times. These machines arguably collect and predict data better than any human oenologist, and they may prove to be the wine world’s best weapon against the climate of tomorrow.
Ted, the soil robot
In Bordeaux and the South of France, vineyard robots track vine configuration patterns. Further north, in Cognac, robots traverse the soil of the Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne crus.
One robot, dubbed Ted, was developed by Naïo Technologies in Toulouse, France. A pair of robotics engineers, Gaëtan Séverac and Aymeric Barthes, developed Ted to provide answers to contemporary agriculture problems, particularly those that pertain to sustainable agriculture and labor-intensive tasks.
Last year, Naïo pitched Ted to Rémy Martin, which implemented the technology to assist their farmers and increase precision in the vineyard. The brand is the first to own a Ted prototype, which is not yet available to the public. The partnership allows the centuries-old Cognac house to modernize their process, while Naïo receives data necessary to enhance its robotics. Each week, Ted roams Rémy Martin’s vineyards and sends real-time data back to Naïo.
But what exactly does an autonomous robot do in the vineyard? Ted works beneath the soil to eliminate weeds under the vines. The task alleviates competition for the water and nitrogen supply, says Laura Mornet, who’s responsible for research and development of viticulture at Rémy Martin.
Ted seeks to ensure consistency in each row and plot, which is important for healthy grapes and water conservation. It also prunes vines, which eliminates the need for chemical weed killers.
“With the limitation of plot inputs, global warming and climatic accidents such as hail and frost, the winegrower needs to be more responsive and intervene more quickly,” says Mornet. Robots like Ted can help vineyards and farmers speed up traditional processes.
“Robotics provide solutions to human challenges and improve the regularity of work in the field,” says Mornet. “We also use drones with captors to detect diseases and are able to heal them with the highest precision. In addition, our satellites are helping to increase visibility of the activity on our plots.”
The VineScout project
Just over the border in Spain, Dr. Francisco Rovira-Más, professor at the Universitat Politècnica de València and director of the Agricultural Robotics Lab, oversees another robotic vineyard project, named VineScout. Its robot analyzes thousands of data points from canopy temperature to nitrogen levels, all obtained via a 3D stereoscopic machine vision system, lidar and ultrasound sensors.
Europe produces over half the world’s wine supply. The socioeconomic effects of inconsistent quality in the bottle inspires the work of Rovira-Más.
“The risk of losing reputation is high when repeatability cannot be [guaranteed], which happens ever more in the vineyards where manual data sampling is meager due to unaffordable costs,” says Rovira-Más. “Therefore, our aim is to industrialize, demonstrate and market…a small-size and cost-efficient robot for the vineyard.”
In a March webinar to winemakers across the globe, Rovira-Más said that harvest decisions loom as the biggest factor in the future of wine. VineScout’s data assists vineyard management to identify homogenous zones of high-quality grapes.
What can take winemakers weeks to compile and analyze, the robot can tackle in a fraction of that time. It can help calculate harvest timing, water measurements and nitrogen levels in vine leaves. An increase in field data can allow growers to more efficiently irrigate vines, which saves water. Similarly, growers that use pesticides or fertilizers can do so with more precision and predict or track results.
Rovira-Más sees such technology as useful throughout Europe, as well as other agricultural industries that face similar challenges, like Washington State’s renowned cherry trees.
Symington Family Estates, in Portugal’s Upper Douro, will be the first to employ VineScout in its harvest this year, when they will experiment with wines produced from selected zones.
As the world changes in ways that farmers struggle to predict, engineers will continue to aid those in the field to keep the wine and agriculture industries sustainable.