GRANDVIEW - Tony Koselka of Vision Robotics sees a future in which a single worker can manage four or five pruning robots in a work day, each capable of pruning 200 acres of grapevines in a year.
Koselka presented the idea at the Washington State Grape Society's annual conference in Grandview via video connection from California last Friday. He explained how technology has advanced with more powerful computers, better cameras, less bulky motors and longer lasting batteries to the point where an automated pruner is now possible.
After a presentation about automation in agriculture, Koselka talked about the challenges that his company has to overcome in order to build a product farmers will buy.
"Robots must be fast, efficient and thorough," he explained, in order for a farmer to justify the high initial cost.
Agriculture also presents a challenge in that the product is easily damaged. While other industries can easily use robots to weld together parts, robots tend to be indiscriminate, which can lead to problems when they come in contact with delicate fruit, according to Koselka.
"The first generation of harvesters and hedge pruners were very indiscriminate," he said. "They were not equal to hand labor in quality."
Focusing on pruning, Koselka said that cameras are making the difference. By scanning the entire plant with a camera, a pruner can create a 3D model of the plant. After that, it's just a matter of programming rules on what needs to be cut.
"Each farmer may have a different way of pruning," he said. "We can have a set of rules that fits. Computers are very good at following rules."
For the actual cuts, a camera on the arm of the robot helps it locate the correct stem and the correct spot on the stem. A video of the process met with audience approval.
The current prototype is a machine that covers the entire grapevine and is pulled by an automated tractor. As the machine is pulled along, it uses the cameras to model the vines, then the vines are pruned by mechanical arms.
Koselka said that, depending on funding, they might have it ready for the market in 18 to 24 months. He estimated the price at $100,000 to $150,000, but cautioned that both the time frame and costs were estimates.
In the question session, a farmer asked what the maintenance costs would be. Koselka said to figure on 10 percent of the purchase price per year.
Another farmer asked how the machine handled snow. Koselka was stumped.
"We haven't considered it," he admitted. "It's not a California problem."
More information, including a video of the machine in action, can be found at the Vision Robotics website at http://visionrobotics.com.