‘Field robots are no miracle solution’

CEOL is equipped with a category 1 lift. It can carry or tow a range of different sized tools. - Photo: Agreenculture
CEOL is equipped with a category 1 lift. It can carry or tow a range of different sized tools. - Photo: Agreenculture

The CEOL field robot is an inter-row crawler developed in Toulouse by the young company Agreenculture. It can work several hectares per day fully autonomous thanks to its RTK GPS and its rear tool carrier allows it to tow different tools. French grower Quentin Terrigeol bought one 2 years ago and shares his experiences with us.

The CEOL robot is an inter-row crawler developed in Toulouse by the young French company Agreenculture. In 2021, French manufacturer of machinery and solutions for vineyards Pellenc, aware of the potential of this machine, decided to invest in the young start-up to help it develop its prototype into a marketable product by 2023.

At present, CEOL can work several hectares per day autonomously thanks to its RTK GPS and its rear tool carrier allowing it to tow different tools.

But let’s go back to 2019, when the Terrigeol family first saw the robot in action and decided to integrate it into their vineyard. Quentin Terrigeol looks back on his 2 years of working with the CEOL robot.

Switch to organic vineyard

Quentin Terrigeol is part of the third generation working on the Terrigeol estate. To continue to develop the estates, he and his family decided decided to grow organically on 33 of the total of 88 hectares. Even though the family already was not much into chemical weed control, they had to rethink how to manage weeds.

The vineyard of the future

Faced with the difficulty and repetitiveness of soil cultivation as well as a shortage of machine operators, the family begins to look into agricultural robotics. It is in 2021, that they officially became a co-design partner of Agreenculture. Today, Quentin tells us why they made this decision, the advantages, and constraints of working with a prototype, and shares his vision of the vineyard of the future.

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CEOL with finger weeder in the Loire Valley. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot
CEOL with finger weeder in the Loire Valley. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot

How did your collaboration with Agreenculture start?

“We first discovered agricultural robots back in 2017. At that time, we witnessed a demonstration of a straddling robot in vineyards, but the investment was too high. However, seeing this machine in action confirmed to me that the viticultural world was about to undergo a revolution. On the other hand, I was not convinced that it would evolve so quickly.

In 2019, we heard about a new inter-row crawler robot that was in development at one of our neighbors who has a tree nursery. The robot was still in its early stages, but the concept seemed more suited to our vineyard needs and would be cheaper. Our first contact with the manufacturer was when we tried to convince them to try the machine for the first time on a vineyard.

From the 2020 season onwards, everything accelerated as the manufacturer organized demonstrations in the area to find its first winegrowers’ partners for the next year. Aware of the machine’s potential and the recruitment difficulties we were experiencing during COVID, we decided to join the project officially.

The manufacturer was offering the possibility of a co-development partnership to keep improving its machine in real conditions and use. To join the project, we had to buy the machine, and to guarantee a certain availability. In return, the manufacturer charges us a lower price and provide its service, repairs, improvements, and some tools for free.”

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Quentin Terrigeol (left) with his brother Nathan.
Quentin Terrigeol (left) with his brother Nathan. "Compared to a tractor, the CEOL robot has its advantages and disadvantages, but it is up to us to adapt to get the best out of it." - Photo: Quentin Terrigeol

How long did it take to get used to the robot?

The robot has changed a lot since we use it, so let’s say a total of 15 days to become familiar with all different aspects of it. The most difficult phase is the start-up phase because there is a protocol to respect. If we do not follow it, the machine will not work correctly.

To control the robot, there are two things to keep in mind. First, the remote control used to move the robot. Second, we have access on our smartphone to a simple application with which we program the tasks, select the map, and adjust the working speeds.”

How has the robot evolved since the beginning?

“The first time we saw the robot in 2019, it couldn’t make a U-turn in the vineyard. The numerous improvements carried out during the 2020 season have allowed the machine to adapt to the condition of the vineyards.

When we officially joined the project in 2021, there were quite a few reliability issues. We often had to interve and couldn’t yet let the robot work by itself. As with any product which is under development, there were many breakdowns and improvements needed.”

It gives me a great sense of satisfaction when I look at where we came from!

What are the biggest improvements?

“Initially, the robot lacked power. That issue was taken are of by installing a new, more powerful diesel engine. The problem of loss of signal reception due to dense vegetation was solved by raising the antenna. The A-B point mapping was revised because it wasn’t precise enough. The software has also evolved a lot, through regular updates.

Today we have an autonomous machine, more reliable mechanically and software wise. Of course, everything is not yet perfect, but the machine manages to work 15 hectares on its own. Sometimes I only receive the message: “Work completed” in the middle of the day. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction when I look at where we came from!”

CEOL working with weeding blade. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot
CEOL working with weeding blade. – Photo: Maxence Guillaumot

How are service and maintenance organised?

“The manufacturer has two technicians nearby. Service, maintenance, and improvements are managed directly with them. For the moment, the various subscriptions, updates, and other services such as mapping, are free of charge.

When I have a breakdown, I call the technicians. If the breakdown is due to a component, they replace the part within a day if it readily available. It can take up to 10 days if they need to order a part. If the failure is due to the software, the team in Toulouse takes over the robot remotely and solves the problem. This can take anywhere from an hour to few days. Updates are also managed remotely by the manufacturer; I just need to leave the machine on.”

What was the impact of the implementation of the CEOL robot on your vineyard?

Like with any new technology, there have been many changes. Regarding working our plots, we really had to relearn how to work with this machine. All rows and vines must be straight and have enough space at the end for turning. We have added stakes at the entry of the rows to avoid the blades to get caught in anchor wire.

Also, with the robot we tend to pass more regularly and at an earlier stage. The robot does not have the power of a tractor, so if we do not manage the weed in an early enough stage, it becomes impossible to catch up with it. On the other hand, the low weight of the machine and its tracks allow for more flexibility. We can go into the field soon after a rainstorm and we can work longer, because the robot does not get tired and does not need any breaks.”

How productive is the robot?

“Currently, it works on 15 hectares of our farm. Generally, I leave the machine in the plots all the time. That’s advantage of having a diesel engine; I can refuel it in the field. I program it and adjust the tools during 2 passes before leaving it in autonomy until I receive a message teling me the work is done. It works on plots of 1.5 to 5 hectares which are located right next to my office, which allows me to keep a constant eye on it.

We have the robot work mainly with 2 tools: weeder blades to weed under the row and a shredder to mow the inter-row. For the mowing, it makes on average 5 passes per year, with a 10-day interval. For weeding, we make between 3 and 6 passes per year according to what the plots need. We als tried to have the robot shred the vine shoots, but it lacks power for that so we focus on the repetitive tasks.

We program it at 2-3 km/h. Keeping in mind that we work with 2 meters spacing in this region and that one row out of two is grassed, we reach maximum capacities of 0.3 ha/h for weeding and 0.6 ha/h for mowing. With the tractor, we are twice as fast. We have also done a little bit of cultivating to weed the inter-row at 4-5 km/h, with a maximum capacity of 0.8ha/h.”

Regardless the time of day, it works with the same level of precision all the time

How do you compare the work of the robot with that of the tractor?

“While the robot cannot compete in terms of productivity, it is better in terms of quality and precision of work. With its GPS, we have a precision of 1-2 cm. Regardless the time of day, it works with the same level of precision all the time. It is slower, so we are less aggressive on the vines when we weed them. I also prefer the mowing carried out by the robot, since ata speed of 2 km/h, the quality of mowing is better than when driving at 6 km/h with a tractor.

Another factor to consider in the current economic and environmental situation is the fuel consumption. Although CEOL is equipped with an internal combustion engine, it consumes only between 1.5 and 2 liters of diesel per hour, or 6L/ha. The consumption of our tractors is closer to 12L/ha, so we save fuel on each pass.”

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Although CEOL is not as powerful as a tractor, its low weight and tracks offer advantages. There is less compaction and less risk of damaging the vines.  - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot
Although CEOL is not as powerful as a tractor, its low weight and tracks offer advantages. There is less compaction and less risk of damaging the vines. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot

How do you see your robot evolving?

“It will be more autonomous and reliable. According to our calculations, if we exploit its full potential, we can mow and weed 40 hectares with it. Next year, we will start with an additional 10 hectares.

I see it evolving to a fleet of single-task robots rather than one large multi-function robot. Working with a fleet would allow us to save the time of changing tools and adjustments, while leaving us the possibility of exchanging the machines if one of them breaks down. I am also convinced that other tasks will be automated in the next few years, such as treatments or canopy management.

What does the future hold for tractor operators?

I think the tractor drivers will become fleet managers. There will always be a need for people to manage logistics, the routings, check the settings, supervise the robots and for troubleshooting in general.”

Don’t see robots as a miracle solution that we can simply put in the fields to solve all your problems

What advice would you give to other growers who are considering investing in a robot?

“You must keep in mind the earlier you invest in a robot project, the more time and energy you will spend. On the other hand, investing earlier gives you the opportunity to anticipate and prepare your vineyards for the coming revolution.

It is important not to see the robot as a miracle solution that we can simply put in the fields to solve all your problems. If you want the machine to perform, it is necessary to constantly question yourself and think about how to improve your own practices. Compared to a tractor, the robot has its advantages and disadvantages, but it is up to us to adapt to get the best out of it.”

Guillaumot
Maxence Guillaumot Product and Market Analyst, AgTech Market
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