Friday, 17 February 2023 15:25

Scare Tactics: Robotic technologies applied to bird scaring

Written by  Tony Skinner

Small autonomous robots are being trialled as bird deterrents across Marlborough this growing season as the developer looks to demonstrate their utility in the role.

Josh McCulloch is the founder of Autonabit, a start-up building small autonomous robots for vineyards. The robots use bird bangers, sirens, kites, and reflectors to protect the vines.

Josh explains that because they are autonomous, the robots are always moving and don’t require manual repositioning. At the end of the day’s operation, they return home to charge autonomously. “We aim to massively reduce the economic and environmental impact of operating a vineyard. If we start deploying small robots in vineyards, we can eliminate the number of tasks that tractors and tractor drivers have to do,” Josh says.

“Our Autonomous Vineyard (AV) vehicle is a four-wheel drive, electric vehicle, and it can navigate autonomously in the vineyard. We’re this season going to be operating in a bird management role. On top of that, we are currently prototyping an under-vine mower. So that’s where we get into eliminating the environmental and economic impact of operating tractors.”

While he is based in Christchurch, Josh grew up amongst the vines in Rapaura and realised the robotics technologies he was developing through the University of Canterbury had obvious applications as bird deterrents. Throughout the current growing season, he is deploying at least five autonomous robots as part of the trial programme, working with wine companies such as Wither Hills, aiming to prove how the vehicles offer a “set and forget” approach to bird protection.

The current prototype of the AV is the third iteration of the design, which features a more robust vehicle design and more secure communications connectivity. The day before Winegrower Magazine’s visit, the robots were driven continuously for more than seven hours, covering 42km, using an estimated 20 cents of electricity.

Before the AV is deployed, the vineyard is surveyed, and the vehicles then use GPS for navigation with a camera on the front to avoid unexpected obstacles. The robot’s software is built around the Robot Operating System (ROS) framework, with application-specific code developed to tailor it for vineyards. A dashboard provides control of deployed robots, with the updating camera view showing each vehicle’s current surroundings.

One of the engineering challenges Josh faces is elevating the GPS antenna above the level of the vine canopy for improved navigation reliability, an aspect that is better addressed by the latest design. Josh says while every vineyard manager has their own methodology for bird deterrence, the robots were designed to employ existing tools such as kites, sirens and gas guns. “We’re not trying to sell you on a new way of doing it – you can use your existing tools, but now you can cut down the management of them. For a larger operation, say 30 hectares, you might have two or three robots and put the bird banger on one, the kite on the other and the siren on the third. And then each day, they might do a different block.”

Operators can reconfigure coverage through the dashboard, allowing the robots to cover different areas as needed. In a bird-scaring context, the fact that the robots remain on the move is a deterrent in and of itself.

“I’ve heard stories about birds actually sitting on bird bangers. I think maybe they learned the cycle – they know they can sit there for the next 10 minutes before it goes off. So, we’re hoping that by keeping things moving, we can keep the birds on their toes.”

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