OPINION: The role primary industries play in New Zealand’s economy has changed dramatically in the past 10 years.
Nearly four years on, the third iteration - V3 - has been busy at Mustang Vineyard in Marlborough's Brancott Valley, single handedly mowing, weeding and trimming the 66-hectare block this season. “I have absolutely loved it,” says Murray, Cloudy Bay’s Vineyard Innovation and Engineering Manager, as he watches the sleek machine’s rapid progress up a row, leaving neatly trimmed vines in its wake. “I have always been interested in the meeting point between engineering and agriculture.”
That interest was seeded during his childhood on a farm in Zimbabwe, learning from his father. Murray went on to study aircraft engineering in the United Kingdom, before he and his girlfriend came to New Zealand in 2017, travelling the country in a van. When he picked up a vineyard job at Cloudy Bay, Murray saw the potential for machinery designed and built for New Zealand conditions, and was increasingly given workshop tasks in lieu of vineyard work. He and his now-wife stayed, and when the labour constraints of Covid-19 began to bite, Murray explored an autonomous solution.
He started with bits and pieces in the workshop, an old 13-horsepower generator engine, and some sprayer pumps, then “mashed it together to see if the concept would work”. It did, and when that first design – “literally rusty bits of metal” – drove up and down five rows on its own, people started getting excited.
Along with the pressure points of Covid-19, Cloudy Bay’s herbicide-free trials were a motivation, Murray says. “The thinking was that if we had to cultivate everything and go away from herbicide, we’d need a lot more machinery, a lot more implements, and a lot more operators to do the job.”
Brock Campbell, Cloudy Bay’s Vineyard Sustainability and Operations Manager, says V3 makes their sustainability ambitions more viable. “It frees up our staff to do more technical work and higher skilled tasks,” he says. “It’s a shining example of when management gives the green-light for innovation, and when those guys who have their boots in the soil come up with the good ideas.”
The tractor is designed to straddle vines rather than run between rows, so it can easily switch between blocks of different row widths. The latest version has four-wheel steer, allowing it to turn from row to row without skipping, and has capacity for multiple tasks simultaneously, from weeding and mowing to trimming and plucking, along with data collection, all fitted inside its “tunnel”.
Murray notes that a lot of effort has gone into the safety perception system, with lidar, radar and cameras for detecting objects. Multiple camera feeds, as well as machine telemetry data, can be accessed from an online portal, allowing the machine supervisor to focus on other jobs while checking in every few hours, or to supervise multiple machines simultaneously. There are lots of changes in line for V4, including continual software development, added versatility for different implements, and a more powerful, efficient, and lower emissions engine. The current design is diesel, because of the high energy requirement for running powered implements, but Murray will work towards hybrid and electric options as they become more viable.
He notes that while design, fabrication, engines and hydraulics are all within his wheelhouse, and local suppliers helped with the hydraulic system, the software development was a new foray. When outsourcing that task proved convoluted, he opted to train himself, in a “huge” but rewarding challenge.
The “closed loop” of him in the vineyard assessing progress, and in the shed working on adjustments, has meant swifter acceleration in the development, Murray says. That will ramp up now as he has a mechanical engineering student working with him on V4. “It’s nice to have another pair of hands.”