An autonomous machine in the vineyard: ‘It never goes quite how you expect’

07-03-2023 | |
Pernod Ricard Winemakers currently has 19 Oxins in its fleet. - Photo: Smart Machine Oxin
Pernod Ricard Winemakers currently has 19 Oxins in its fleet. - Photo: Smart Machine Oxin

Oxin is a fully autonomous multitasking machine for safe, efficient, and sustainable vineyards and orchards. The Oxin utilises its implement stack to precisely control up to three implements at once. A single person can operate a fleet of remote machines. Kate Lattey, Transformation Director at Pernod Ricard Winemakers, tells Future Farming that working with the Oxin has been a project with big ambition, and a real journey.

Kate Lattey is Transformation Director at Pernod Ricard Winemakers. Her main tasks are preparing the business for the future, and looking at technology, processes, and improvements. Ms Lattey studied chemistry and biochemistry and has only worked in the wine-industry, mainly in research & development and innovation. She joined Pernod Ricard 16 years ago. The Smart Machine Oxin project is based in the wine region of Marlborough, on New Zealand’s South Island.

When did you first hear about the about the Oxin of Smart Machine?

“We did not hear about Oxin, we co-created it with Smart Machine. Our partnership with Smart Machine Oxin started right from its inception in 2018. Following a conversation in the pub, one of the owners of Smart Machine later came to us with an idea and it grew from there. It has honestly rewritten the blueprint of how we do partnerships. It has been a project with big ambition and a real journey. And it never goes quite how you expect. But the problem-solving and willingness to learn from both parties has been exceptional.”

How do you control the Oxins?

“We have operators in the vineyard, that use a tablet for four machines. They run autonomously and concurrently, alongside one another. The operator can see what is happening live. And there is a web-based interface to see what is going on.”

Did it take a long time to get used to operating the Oxin?

“No. Our journey started on day one. So, we have been working alongside of Smart Machine. But with any of the tech, there is an enormous change-management piece. To be honest, we are in the phase of implementing what this looks like within our operations, and we are really driving the benefits. We are still in a development phase but shifting to an operational phase. We are learning what efficiency looks like in a ratio of operators to machines. And that might be different for different vineyard settings.”

How has Oxin evolved since you started working with it?

“The thing I love about Smart Machine as a company, is their mindset. They now have a team of 24, from outside the wine-industry. I have always said that we as an industry are always trying to solve problems ourselves. We have encountered numerous challenges along the way, but the people from Smart Machines look at these challenges as opportunities. We are now onto generation 3 of the machine. There has been an evolution, in functionality, in the look and feel, in the stack, and in the way it is controlled. They have a constant-improvement-mentality, and want to do things better with upgrades.”

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The Oxins can do multiple jobs in a single pass. - Photo: Smart Machine Oxin
The Oxins can do multiple jobs in a single pass. - Photo: Smart Machine Oxin

How are service and maintenance organised?

“We are still working out what that exactly looks like. But we have the location of the workshop close by, and that has been incredible. If there is something, like a hose that blows, there is such a quick turnaround in terms of fixing it. And anything that is under warranty, is quickly replaced. New Zealand is a long way from anywhere, and it is often challenging to get machines serviced or talk to the right people. But with Oxin, the experts are right there.”

Do you use multiple applications at the same time? What are the applications of Oxin that you use?

“Yes, using multiple applications was one of the drivers for developing this together. We wanted something that does multiple jobs in a single pass. There is a big focus in the wine-industry on soil carbon and on the number of passes in vineyards. You want a minimal impact. Right from the beginning we were discussing how many tasks we could do simultaneously. Last week I saw the machines mowing and defoliating in a single pass, and we are working on trimming at the same time. Ideally, we would then have three tasks in a single pass. We will have less carbon impact and will use less diesel, because we are not running the tractor three times up the row. That is for the summer tasks. In the winter we will be mulching and herbicide-spraying.”

Will you also be using the Oxin in Australia?

“We are having discussions about that. We have a smaller footprint ourselves in Australia, but we have a lot of growers there. We had two growers from Australia over last week, and they were extremely impressed. These are growers that have rows in vineyards that are one kilometre long. It would have enormous benefits to do multiple tasks in one pass.”

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Pernod Ricard has operators in the vineyard, that use a tablet for four machines. - Photo: Smart Machine Oxin
Pernod Ricard has operators in the vineyard, that use a tablet for four machines. - Photo: Smart Machine Oxin

What was the impact on the different jobs?

“I was blown away by the quality of the job. It was not something that we had given a high priority. We noticed we could not get people to operate tractors, because the borders had been closed and Marlborough is a regional location. So, we wondered how we eventually would get the work done. But soon it became very apparent that the defoliation that the Oxin does, is superior to the job that is done on a tractor. Our aim with Oxin is to get through the work program, but to also enhance the job.”

Are you saving money, using the Oxins?

“It is still too early to say. We would have never engaged in this partnership if there was not a financial benefit as well. But that benefit is really linked back to people, and the fact that we just can’t get people. So, it is about getting the jobs done.”

If you could improve the Oxin, in what ways would you do this?

“The big challenge is around diesel-use. There is a big focus on our carbon footprint. I saw the new electric version of the machine, the Ox-e, recently for the first time, and I’m very excited about it. We are talking internally how it fits in our business. And there is a big change needed for actually imbedding the machines into our operations.”

What advice would you give farmers who are considering buying a robot?

“Safety is number one. Make sure the company you work with, has the same focus on safety as you do. Expect the unexpected, in terms of what you are going to learn. With these kinds of ambitious projects, you learn as you go along. And find a company that you trust. We are very lucky with Smart Machine.”

Also read: Oxin vineyard robot to compete in new Ag Robot of the Year election
René Groeneveld Correspondent for Australia