Robot technology to save wine growers AU$200m a year

University of New South Wales researchers are undertaking a trial using robot technology to help wine growers better predict upcoming grape yields, which could potentially save the local industry millions.

University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers will use robotic technology as part of a trial to help Australian wine producers better predict the grape yields, which could potentially save the local industry millions.

According to UNSW, knowing the grape yield early is essential to wine growers to allow them to plan how many wine barrels they will need to buy or rent, how much tank space to allocate, and the tonnage of grapes to be transported.

Presently, farmers manually sample grapes at various stages of growth and use past knowledge to predict future production.

"It's not a very exact science, and it's very subjective," said lead researcher Dr Mark Whitty. "Early in the season, the estimates can be out by more than 50 percent."

The researchers -- from UNSW's School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering -- will trial three vehicle prototypes equipped with automated cameras and robotic technology at Jarretts of Orange in central NSW, and at vineyards owned by Treasury Wine Estates in South Australia's Clare Valley.

The vehicles will then be driven along rows of grapes to collect the information necessary to accurately estimate yields earlier in the seasons, potentially before the vines even begin to bud.

The image data captured by the vehicles is expected to shed light on vine parameters, such as berry diameter and bunch size, and be capable of weighing grape bunches and measure picked volumes.

"Our intention is to drive through the vineyard and observe as much as we can of what's on the vines at different stages of maturity, and then use that to try and correlate what the yield is actually going to be," Whitty said.

A low-budget prototype is already being tested at Jarretts of Orange. It consists of GoPro cameras mounted to the side of a car. A more expensive prototype will be built and tested during the year.

"We've found it gives good results for the majority of situations we have so far, and it is very much a budget solution that is easily applicable to farmers," Whitty said.

The researchers are six months into what is expected to be a three-year project. The prototype systems are being used on four sets of vines of one variety and two different varieties of grape.

"If it works at this scale, we'd look to expand the scale of the tests Australia wide," Whitty said.

NSW Department of Primary Industries' viticulture research leader, Greg Dunn, predicted that if successful, technology systems such as those proposed by UNSW could save Australia's wine industry between AU$100 million and AU$200 million a year.

The Australian Grape and Wine Authority (AGWA) is funding the project as part of an arrangement with the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Apart from the UNSW project, NSW DPI is also overseeing a project by Macquarie University researchers similarly aimed at improving yield estimations. Whitty said the two projects will share data and data analysis skills.