Oct. 22 - A French engineer is offering wine-growers an efficient way to prune their vines without breaking their back - a robot designed to do it for them. While Wall-Ye (pron: Wall-Yee) the robot is still a work in progress, wine growers who've seen it are drinking to its potential. Jim Drury reports.
As this year's grape harvest nears its end, this novel vineyard helper could offer overworked winemakers a less stressful future. Wall-Ye the robot can drive across vineyards, test the soil, and prune vines after the summer harvest. Its inventor Christophe Millot has put his creation to the test among the vines of Macon. SOUNDBITE (French) INVENTOR OF THE ROBOT CHRISTOPHE MILLOT SAYING: "When I designed the robot, I took measurements of myself, of the width of my shoulders and the length of my arms, to reproduce the same movements we make. The difference is that it's on wheels, whereas a human being has to bend to prune the vines or sometimes move on a trolley." With four wheels and two metal arms, Wall-Ye is fitted with six web cameras and GPS. For now the robot is mainly limited to checking temperature and counting the number of missing vines..those which have died during the season. But Millot says his robot could be programmed to prune up to 600 vines per day. Wine-maker Claire Gazeau-Montrasi says she's impressed by Wall-Ye's potential and would welcome the help of an android employee. SOUNDBITE (French) WINEMAKER AND OWNER OF THE DOMAIN OF CHATEAU DES RONTETS CLAIRE GAZEAU-MONTRASI SAYING: "It will be able to remember each wine stock, count the number of missing stocks, and eventually help analyse the maturity of vines before the harvest. It may help observe the strength of the vines depending on soil changes the previous year. It helps in a whole range of tasks that we winemakers don't have time for." Once final modifications to his prototype are complete, Millot says Wall-Ye will go into commercial production. A price tag of 25,000 euros might put off smaller firms but the engineer believes buyers will eventually find them cost effective. SOUNDBITE (French) INVENTOR OF THE ROBOT CHRISTOPHE MILLOT SAYING: "Those who look for workers are unable find to find them, or they get seasonal workforce who they have to train each year. On the contrary, the robot, once it has been trained, the following year after it will be able to prune again, etc. So winemakers can tell themselves 'at least this worker will be permanent.'" Millot hopes that by this time next year his order book will be full - a prospect to which fans of Wall-ye are happy to raise a glass.