IGWS launches a robotics flagship project

IGWS Viticulture Platform - 01 Jun 2016

Dassie 1 600p

The Viticulture platform of the Institute for Grape and Wine Science (IGWS) launched an ambitious robotics project with the first demonstration of a vineyard robot prototype. The remote controlled Robot X (also known as “The Dassie”) was introduced to a group of viticulturists in a vineyard used for training at the Stellenbosch University (SU) experimental farm, Welgevallen. This project was undertaken with the vision of making viticulture in South Africa sustainable and future-focused by using advanced technology. Basic challenges and opportunities in the industry will be used as a basis to help determine the robot’s functions. The purpose of introducing the prototype to the industry at a very early stage, is to encourage interaction with and input from industry.

The project is funded by the IGWS and is a collaboration between a team of researchers from SU and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Dr. Albert Strever and Prof. Melané Vivier from the Department of Viticulture and Oenology (DVO), Berno Greyling (IGWS) and Dr. Wyhan Jooste (Industrial Engineering) are members of the SU team. The CSIR has a team of specialists working on the development of the robot prototype and include: Messrs. Peter Bosscha (Mechatronics Engineer/Business Development); Roel Stolper (Sensor Specialist and Researcher); Hein Swart (Mechanical and Electrical Design); Hanno Schreiber (Robot Control Programming); and Willis De Ronde (Mechanical Design).

A lot of progress has been made since the project proposal was accepted in September 2015 and the CSIR came on board in October 2015. It is a tremendous achievement for the team to be able to launch a prototype at such an early stage of the project.

“The Dassie” prototype is quite agile and can easily move around in the vineyard. A few sensors have been fixed to the platform and include a laser (LIDAR) scanner as well as high definition cameras facing to the front and sideways. At the demonstration, it was also shown that the robot can pull an electromagnetic induction sensor behind it to be able to map soil differences. All measurements are streamed to an online computer to be able to process the information. Currently, the robot can be controlled via WiFi from a computer or a cell phone.

People involved in the project reiterated that the project and development of the robot is only starting now. Over the course of the next 12 months, “The Dassie” will be comprehensively tested and further refined. A vineyard robot should ideally make it easier for producers and/or consultants to obtain accurate information to manage grape production. The goal is thus to test and develop sensors to be able to obtain a spatial overview of a vineyard, quickly and accurately, without necessarily having to take physical samples for analysis. This information should aid decision making.

Part of this project is to take an in-depth look at the whole grape production system and to identify areas where the robot can play a role and make an impact in this system.

Why develop a robot that can move through vineyard rows? Sensors and loggers that are installed in fixed positions in a vineyard can only give measurements for that specific point. The measurements are then extrapolated to the rest of the vineyard. A robot, similar to other remote sensing devices, gives a spatial overview of a whole vineyard. This information can assist in determining where exactly in a vineyard the best location is to install for example a soil moisture probe. It can then help to put those measurements in context with the rest of the vineyard. Drones can also be used to obtain a spatial overview of a vineyard but is not as practical to implement. Restrictions such as windy weather conditions and recent legal regulations pose a number of challenges.

Although other countries are already experimenting with vineyard robots, there are a lot of good reasons to develop a South African robot. To import a robot will be very expensive. The CSIR and SU has the expertise to make a success of this project. Development and making use of local expertise is also very high on the agendas of both the IGWS and CSIR. It provides the perfect opportunity to develop a suitable product for the local vineyard industry with South African partners.

Some of the potential applications for the robot that will be investigated include yield estimation, collection of soil information and diagnosis of stress reactions and excess or shortage of nutritional elements in a grapevine. Robotics can lead to automation of the collection of data which can support decision making. Examples from other industries indicate that data captured can be converted to useful information which leads to the development of intelligent systems that can be applied in various ways. The team said: “It is by no means farfetched to think that a vineyard robot can be part of future viticulture in South Africa. Especially if we can do it in a cost-effective way.”


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