Robots of Napa

In 1950 Isaac Asimov writes a booked called “I Robot”, in 1957 he writes “The Naked  Sun”, in 1966 Griffy watches “Star Trek”, in 1967 12 year old Griffey  has to write a book report, the book “I Robot”, thus my life long love of science fiction is born.  Recently I read “The Naked Sun”, couple with 30 plus years in electronics and a passion for wine, this post was inspired.

The book is set on the planet Solaria.  Solaria is an agricultural planet  where there are only about 20,000 humans and about 200 million robots. The planet’s inhabitants are isolationist and is closed to future immigration from Earth.  I’ll let you read the rest of the story yourselves is a real good who done it.  But, Solaria is important because it feeds most of the galaxy.  Which would be impossible without the robots.

Vineyard Mechanization was a featured topic at the the 2017 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.  And as the Wine Economist Mike Veseth says “In case you haven’t notice, the political framework of globalization is unraveling, with a strong push-back against international movements of goods, services, capital and people”.   Oooh that sounds bad.  And we may disagree if this is a good or bad thing, personally I’m a economic Doris Day, “Que Sera Sera whatever will be will be”!

But one thing is for sure workers will have to come to the farm, because the farm sure as hell can’t go to the workers.  The experts seem to feel farming labor is about to become more scarce and we have to find alternatives.  Me, I like robots, bring them on, low cost, hard working, fewer mistakes, don’t talk back, I love them.

So are we moving to the “No Touch” vineyard?  Maybe!

The Drones are coming the Drones are coming.  We are now using satellites and drones to select vineyard sites, watch for pest and monitor agricultural policies.  All being done today.  Sending a drone costs about ⅓ of sending and inspector.  Birds eating your grapes, send in the drones.  Today drones are collecting data to determine the vine’s vigor, ripeness, flavors  and harvest dates. 

Let’s take a look at other vine related robots from an article authored by Andy Wilson in the April 11th 2016 edition of Vision Systems Design.

One of the most labor intensive tasks in a vineyard is planting new vines.  It’s a two man process where they drive a backhoe with a planting attachment to the planting site.  One man drives the machine and drills the hole, the other plants the vine.  Robotic researchers at University of Victoria BC Canada, have developed a tree planter called the “Tree Rover”.  It is an electric autonomous vehicle that carries 10 seedings.  It drives itself to the planting site, digs the hole and plants the new tree.  They are working on a Vine Rover.

Once the vines are planted they need to be monitored.  From Europe we have “Vinerobot”.  Using  cameras, GPS, and a host of sensors that detect leaf nitrogen, and grape pigments. The robot maps the vineyard showing where quality is best, and monitors grape yields.

Vineyards need to be pruned at least once a year. French inventor Christophe Millot has invented Wall-Ye-France, the name contains not just a little irony.  Wall-Ye is an autonomous vine pruner, that works 12 hours a day, (battery life) and cuts perfectly, except when it’s infra red sensing cameras fail, and nothing can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, error, shut down!  This robot is about the size of a lawnmower and can prun faster and better than any human.

Smart irrigation systems.  These systems allow you to monitor soil water tension so you can monitor grapevine stress.   This system is offered by Smart Vineyards, the system measures the root of the vine to decide to water or not.  Modules full of temperature, and humidity sensors watch “blocks” of the vineyard determine the optimal time and amount to water.  IBM is working with Gallo Winery testing their irrigation system.  Watson becomes a winemaker.

Automated picking machines.  These robots have been with us since 2015.   Usually harvesting bulk fruit for the likes of Two Buck Chuck, these machines are getting better and are being used for wines that sell for bigger bucks.  The best method is still hand picking.

But once harvested they have to be sorted. That is after passing through the robotic de-stemmer.  Now they go to an optical sorting machine.  At 18,000 images a second the grapes are sorted to predetermined criteria, stones, sticks  twigs and other nasty stuff is blown off the sorter. The system also sorts the grapes to various quality grades. See the book “The Perfect Score” to see how well these systems work.

Inside the winery there is a host of machines with varying degrees of intelligence  There are automatic largeres that mimic the human foot to crush the grapes.  Bottling lines have long been automated.  Soft pumps move the wine. Sensors control the air, monitoring yeast and CO2.  Not to mention the continuous monitoring of the fermentation process.

How about after the wine leaves the vineyard.  Bar coded cases are sorted, stored and shipped by autonomous fork fits for accurate and speedy delivery. Distributors restaurants and retailers have to manage inventory celler tracking computers to the rescue.  You can even buy a home inventory system from Cellartracker.  Cruise Ships have robotic “bartenders”. Some restaurants and cruise ships have wine kiosks that if you enter a credit card and it will “pour” you a perfect glass of wine.  There is even an “electronic tongue” that can id defects in wine, and dryness in cava’s.

How about even getting to the vineyards?  In a story from Autonomous Vehicles;  author Grayson Brulte says autonomous vehicles will change every aspect of our society from transportation to infrastructure to jobs and life style. Talking about fit for purpose vehicles in Napa Valley Grayson says they will pick guests up in groups or individuals with wine on board. Pre Program infotainment systems will tell you about the wineries and winemakers before you arrive at the vineyard.  Don’t worry about how much wine you drink, your not driving.  Getting lost, not going to happen. Traffic jams reduced, fewer cars.  Gas savings, you bet. An all around superior experience vs. driving yourself.

Now is this the transformation of Earth to Solaria?  NO! But it’s really cool for the 12 year old kid that still lives within me to see the science fiction of 1957 became the science reality of today and within the next few years.

Is this vision everyone’s cup of tea.  Nah!  I expect some hate mail. Will this result in soleless wines, homogenized to the dull grayness of the Borg collective? Possibly.  Remember the winemaker still holds the strings of the puppets.  I do however have great expectations.  Right now the Office of Naval Research is working with 6 Universities on a program to teach robots moral and ethical reasoning.  I hope it’s a better course than what some of the students have been getting.  Who knows, someday a robot with human nuances and an “electronic tongue” might replace Robert Parker.  

I wish I was 12 again.



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