However, in preparation for the transatlantic trek, Millot had the robot repainted, and in the process, the lens of Wall-YE’s main camera was painted over. That rendered the robot unable to perform any pruning functions, as the main camera helps direct a pair of cameras mounted in the arms.
Millot tried to program around the problem, but in the end, the robot couldn’t perform the tasks it was designed for, so the demonstration was scotched.
Millot still answered questions about his invention, with the assistance of Jeff Lorton, owner of the Duke Joseph Agency in Carlton.
He said Wall-YE was a research model, so was designed on a somewhat smaller scale than the company’s commercial model. So far, he said, he’s sold about 30 commercial units to French wineries.
The robot is programmed to remember each vine it cuts from year to year. The main camera recognizes the structure of the wood and directs the other two how to cut as they zero in with one of the arms.
In addition to the pruning robot, Millot has developed a robot designed to mow under solar panels and another to intercept birds and deer with a frightening but harmless laser beam, day and night. The laser robot can spot and ward off birds from 150 meters away — more than 450 feet.
While Wright found the pruning robot intriguing, he told Millot the problem in the Yamhill Valley is with harvesting labor, not pruning labor. So what would really open local eyes is a set of robots capable of actually conducting a harvest.
“Harvest is where we need help,” said Wright. He said it’s not uncommon to need 100 people a day, and said that’s becoming an ever-increasing challenge.
“Right now our labor pool is aging and diminshing,” he said. “It’s becoming more of an issue each year.”
By contrast, he said, a crew of 20 to 30 can handle pruning chores, because pruning can be spread out over an extended period of time and handled bit by bit.
Millot said his company is in the process of developing a pair of grape-harvesting robots. “That’s awesome,” Wright responded.
Lorton said it sounded as if the camera technology used for branch pruning could be adapted for the plucking of grape clusters, and Millot said that is indeed the case. “We need to create a very flexible tool to allow this opportunity,” he said.
Millot said the challenge his company is currently working on is gently catching and storing the grapes after they are cut, not the cutting itself. He said a workable catch system is an essential element.
“The use would be outside of France,” Millot said.
By tradition, every able-bodied person in the community helps with the harvest in France, he said. So it’s the off-season pruning where French growers are looking for help.
The company’s pruning robots sell for 25,000 Euros, or just over $34,000 U.S. He said they can be adapted for other agricultural uses as well.
“Winemakers and farmers tell us what they need and we try and make a system,” he said. He said he’s in the solutions business.
Millot said he included YE in the robot’s name in honor of his children, Yohan and Eloise. And Eloise was accompanying him on his U.S. visit.
While he has been working recently on robots, his primary business is Geographic Information Systems mapping. He said he has about 1,500 GIS clients in France.
A waterproof, battery-operated pruning shear made by Infaco-USA was also part of the demonstration. And this time, things worked out as planned.
Infaco’s president, Thibaud Cau-Cecile, said the company is based in France. He said its U.S. offshoot is based in Livermore, Calif.
Cau-Cecile said the shears can be operated all day in the vineyard and are capable of applying up to one ton of pressure, ensuring clean cuts.
He said the operator wears a harness encompassing a seven-pound battery pack. He said the ergonomically designed shears weigh about two pounds.
Blades are offered in three different sizes. A complete system runs about $2,200.
“It’s made with really robust technology,” said Cau-Cecile. It has an average life expectancy of seven years.
Infaco has also developed a special glove for use with the shears. He said it uses a combination of wool and metal, and as a safety measure, the metal part shuts down the shears if it comes into contact with them.
Cau-Cecile estimated vineyard workers can make 15 to 20 percent more cuts per day using the automated shears.
“Once you find your rhythm, this will go as fast as you can physically go,” he told the audience. “The beauty of these is that people won’t go with the easy cut.”
The demonstrations were a prelude to a Precision Farming Expo. Coordinated by Lorton, it ran Wednesday and Thursday at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, drawing a sell-out crowd.