NZ researchers plan vine-pruning robot

Canterbury and Lincoln University researchers want to build an autonomous robot to work pruning vines in vineyards.

A vine-pruning robot that can navigate vineyards, prune grape vines and tidy up after itself is being developed by a team of researchers at Canterbury and Lincoln universities.

The six-strong team has been granted almost $3 million by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology to develop a robotic pruning system that can autonomously drive a grape harvester at walking pace and prune vines on vineyards.

Team leader Dr Richard Green, from Canterbury University’s School of Computer, Science and Software Engineering, said the proposed system would include robotic cutting arm modules, mounted on the harvester, that could prune, clean up and tie back pruned vines.

“The computer vision side of this is the biggest challenge. Computers are just getting fast enough and camera technology is just now reaching the right depth values that we can do this.”

The system would be unique in the world and could save the New Zealand wine industry $27.5 million per annum through increased productivity and reduced yield losses, Green said. It would require minimal maintenance and, unlike many workers, would provide consistent quality in its pruning.

“We are leading the world with fast accurate colour 3D depth maps of vines, light robot cutting arms and the AI to coordinate this moving at walking speed. Not only can a higher quality be maintained by pruning consistently and accurately while recognising disease and age of vines, but the industry will be able to guarantee pruning within the very brief seasonal window each year.”

The robotic system would take four years to develop, Green said. “By the end of four years we will have a really well field tested version that can be taken into commercial production.”

The research team is working alongside computer vision and robotics company Scott Technology, which developed a robotic meat cutting arm now used in some New Zealand meat works. The team also has support from the New Zealand Wine Growers Association and New Zealand’s largest wine and spirit company, Pernod Ricard NZ.

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James Heffield

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