Sunday, 11 February 2024 15:25

Go forth and Prospr

Written by  Tony Skinner
Lachlan McLeay. Photo Credit: Jim Tannock Lachlan McLeay. Photo Credit: Jim Tannock

A quiet revolution is underway in New Zealand vineyards, and Marlborough’s Matua Wines is on the leading edge.

The wine company, part of Treasury Wine Estates, is currently trialling Prospr, an uncrewed ground vehicle (UGV) developed by New Zealand company Robotics Plus.

The trials have been extremely encouraging, says Lachlan McLeay, Vineyard Manager New Zealand at Treasury Wine Estates. “We are hoping that with increased efficiency of the machines,
there’ll be less issues with staff fatigue.” This reflects the reality that dull, dirty and dangerous work - the three Ds of robotisation – is best suited to autonomous machines. Driverless platforms will also address the industry’s labour challenges, Lachlan says. “These things don’t need to sleep or eat, so they don’t actually need to come back [to the base].”

Robotics Plus showcased Prospr for the first time at FIRA 2023, a California-based event dedicated to agricultural robotics solutions. The UGV’s modular architecture enables the attachment of various tools, including newly released tower sprayers for grapes, developed in conjunction with Croplands. This adaptability is crucial for Matua, as different vineyard tasks require various tools, Lachlan says. “The brains and the smarts of the machines themselves will bring increased operational accuracy. So, targeted spray and rates will hopefully lead to less chemical required. It’s not just a labour saving, all sorts of other operational efficiencies, and precision comes from changing to these.” He notes that the nature of vineyard work is changing, with a younger workforce more attuned to technology, and more likely to be attracted to a role as a robotics technician than a tractor driver.

The hybrid technology of Prospr, featuring electric drive motors and a Tier 4 diesel generator, ensures extended operation with minimal fuel consumption. The vehicle’s regenerative braking and high-capacity batteries enhance its range and efficiency. The autonomous vehicle uses a combination of perception systems to sense the environment, enabling data-driven insights.

Brett Pringle, Implementation Manager for Robotics Plus, highlights the practical side of deploying the machines in the field. “Prospr operates on its mesh network, ensuring consistent and reliable operation. Its combination of GPS, lidar sensors, and cameras allows it to navigate vineyards precisely.”

Robotics Plus has worked on multiple technology advances for Prospr, including a new user interface and improved machine connectivity and control. Alongside its daily tasks, the autonomous vehicle becomes a data-gathering tool that can drive informed vineyard management decisions.

Matua is keen to leverage Prospr’s potential to its fullest, and Lachlan envisions a future where the data captured by Prospr’s sensors could be used for comprehensive vineyard management, from identifying missing vines to detecting irrigation leaks. “Every 10 days, Prospr goes through the vineyard, giving us a live feed of data.” Importantly, the Prospr UGV, with reduced diesel consumption and potential for full electrification, aligns with the sustainability goals of Treasury Wine Estates, which plans to be carbon neutral by 2030.

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