Le 13/06/2020

Robots serving viticulture

Agricultural robotics is revolutionizing vineyard work: time saving, reduced drudgery and reduced use of pesticides, less exposed operators... Turning to robots offers many benefits.

However, the sector is still emerging and several issues remain latent for manufacturers. In order to address these concerns and find a collective response, several players in the sector met at the 4th edition of FIRA (the International Forum for Agricultural Robotics). Gathered around David FRABOTTA, Cedric BACHE, CEO at Vitibot, Fabien ARIGNON, CEO at SITIA and Thierry BIDAUT, Vineyard Manager at Pernod Ricard , discussed their vision of robotics in the wine industry, the challenges and evolution of the sector and the potential economic models.

Why use a robot in viticulture?

Overcoming labor shortages is one of the key benefits of robotics: it is difficult to recruit operators in agriculture, generally speaking, due to a lack of attractiveness and the tedious nature of the tasks, particularly tillage. The robot thus relieves the farmer from these arduous and time-consuming tasks so that he can move on to other work.

The introduction of more environmentally friendly new practices or standards, such as the removal of glyphosate, puts manual weeding tasks back on the agenda. The robot accordingly helps reduce pesticide application and also protect operators exposed to chemical products.

Additionally, the robot provides "precision and repeatability" according to Fabien ARIGNON, which saves time, pesticides, and therefore money.

Trektor, vineyard robot by SITIA

Thierry Bidaut, from Pernod Ricard, has recognized robotics as a sustainable alternative to the challenges of the sector, hence his interest in a start-up such as Vitibot with which his company has established a partnership. The creation of the certification “sustainable viticulture in Champagne” has prompted the wine and spirits leader to consider other solutions to produce more eco-responsibly.

Robots are sometimes unpopular and public opinion does not necessarily see the contribution of new technologies: what’s your take on this?

The phenomenon known as agribashing has emerged in recent years and affects winegrowers in particular.

In response to this observation, Cédric BACHE notes how important it is to bear in mind that some steep or winding terrains require adaptation: even now on some vines "the operator moves in a one-piece suit behind his machine in the spray mist of products." This raises safety and health issues, which is why experiments have been conducted very recently, with drones that spray with precision on sloping vineyards. The advent of smaller robots could facilitate access to rough terrain.

The impact of robotics on agri-bashing will be further discussed during FIRA 2020.

Autonomous robots are therefore faced with several challenges related to environment (with practices that are increasingly environmentally-friendly), to safety and health (by limiting the exposure of the operator or the public to chemicals), but also to the economy. These issues were well conveyed by Henri Bies-Pieré, vice-president of FNSEAand speaker atFIRA 2019 in his article published in Le journal de l'école de Paris du management 2019/2 (N° 136)”.

Vitibot vineyard robot

What are the functions of the robot to be developed in the future?

So far, robots have only handled the mechanical part of the work and have never dealt with the manual part, for it requires a know-how and dexterity that machines do not have and will not have in the foreseeable future. Therefore, according to Cédric BACHE, the aim is to combine common sense, i.e. human intelligence, and the robot's mechanical working capacity.

Vitibot wants to make its platform more versatile by incorporating new features such as spraying. “Farmers want work throughput, thanks to an enduring and robust machine", says Fabien ARIGNON.

‘We perceive in consumers a need for information on the product they consume,’ says Thierry Bidaut, ‘and robotics must contribute to this expectation.’

What business model for these technologies?

The asset of viticulture is that it is a quite concentrated sector, with very few small farms. That is why Vitibot chose to sell directly in Champagne and the Bordeaux region to ensure a permanent follow-up and to focus on two regions.

For now, distributors are not ready to support customers. According to Cédric BACHE the share of service will develop with the rise of precision agriculture which, using sensors, draws up plans and allows optimal use of products. Data analysis is poised to become a prominent activity for manufacturers, as well as the training of operators and the monitoring of the robots performance. This support is essential for Pernod Ricard because, as Thierry BIDAUT declares, ‘the technology is unknown to us (…) and that’s where Vitibot must help us.’

SITIA stresses the importance of working with players already involved in order to save time. The SME prefers to subcontract to go faster. "The models are evolving, it is difficult to choose which one will be the most sustainable", according to its CEO, "we just provide the technology for now."

With the growing number of small plots of land, the CUMAs are becoming an increasingly conceivable option for reducing costs for farmers, still a significant barrier for agricultural robotics.

The standardization of treatments would enable all farms to be at the same level and thus to avoid safety concerns, particularly with regard to the exposure of farm operators to products spread on the neighboring plot.

Categories : #Food