Some of you may have noticed (or not) that posting was pretty sparse (non-existent) earlier this year. I was working 'round-the-clock on a robotic grape vine pruner, which we demonstrated in mid-March in vineyards in Lodi, California. The following video shows the pruner and the demo and describes the technology. It's been the most fun and technically interesting project of my career.
Update:A common question seems to be, "So just what is this thing?"
The task at hand is pruning grape vines. After the grapes are harvested and the grape vines drop their leaves, the vines need to be pruned during the winter to ensure the optimal balance between maximizing fruit yield and obtaining optimum fruit quality during the next spring and summer. This is currently done by hand and is by far the most costly part of growing grapes.
The pruning rules vary between growers and varieties, but the general approach is to leave approximately eight Canes (the vertical shoots) on each Cordon (the horizontal portion of the vine). All the other Canes are to be removed as close as possible to the Cordon and the Canes that are kept should be pruned a bit above the 2nd bud.
The operational concept of the pruner is to use multiple sets of stereo cameras to collect images of the vine and then to process those image to create a detailed model of the vine. The pruning rules are applied to that model and a plan is generated to make the cuts with the robot arms. There are also cameras on the arms which enable the arms to be guided in real time to make the necessary intricate cuts.
This one-of-a-kind prototype was deployed in the field for this demo only 4 months after it was built. The production unit will be much faster, gentler (to the vine), and more accurate. But the prototype in the video is a pretty good start and certainly demonstrated the concept to the growers.