Yannick Robiglio: “Field robot gives me back control over my time”

06-05-2022 | |
Yannick Robiglio, on the right, and his father, on the left. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot
Yannick Robiglio, on the right, and his father, on the left. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot

The Vitibot Bakus is a viticultural straddle robot that integrates a wide range of modular tools. After careful consideration, French wine grower Yannick Robiglio decided to buy one. He has been working with it for a year now. What are his experiences?

Yannick Robiglio did not take any risks before he decided to invest almost € 200,000 in a field robot. But in the end he had enough arguments to invest in it. “The shortage of farm workers is more and more felt in this region. It is impossible to find qualified and motivated tractor operators. As a result, I was doing the repetitive and time-consuming tasks like soil cultivation myself, and I dreaded this moment every year. Since the purchase, with the robot’s work rate, I manage to be two months ahead of my weeding season. I’m not longer chasing after time, and do not consider this task as a burden. By delegating the tillage to this machine, it allowed me to gain flexibility and free up my time for other, more rewarding tasks.”

From an economic point of view, Robiglio did not take the necessary steps to receive any grants. “Even though this machine requires a substantial investment, it saves me hiring a tractor driver, with the numerous charges that go with it. So, while preparing this investment, I studied the gains in time and money that this machine could bring me, and the project was clearly profitable.”

How did you know which robot was the best for your vineyard?

“It took two to three years from the moment I thought of investing in robotics and the moment I actually bought one. This kind of product is relatively new on the market, so as a buyer, you have some doubts at the beginning. That is why it is important to prepare your purchase carefully and to choose the most suitable robot for your needs. Initially, I was thinking about robotising the weeding of my iris production, a smaller project, but I soon realised that it would be economically more interesting to invest in a robot for the vineyard.

I met the two main French field robot manufacturers at SITEVI in 2019. After talking to them, I asked them whether it would be possible to test their machines in my vineyard. The goal was to put the robots to work under realistic conditions, test their capacity and find out how I could use them in practice in my vineyard. The first company came for a demonstration in the summer of 2020 and the second a few months later. The demonstrations took place on 5 hectares. Having seen both machines work, I decided to go for the machine with electric intervines, which seemed to me to be the most suitable for my vineyard.”

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The Vitibot robot equipped with its electric intervines. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot
The Vitibot robot equipped with its electric intervines. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot

How much time did it take to get used to the robot?

“I had already had the opportunity to use the machine during the demonstration. When the robot was delivered, a 3-day training session with an expert took place. During this training, we looked together at the most important things that are involved in using the robot, such as safety, programming, anticipating how the machine will react, and so on. The manufacturer also used this training to make maps of the fields. Maybe my technical background helped, but after two hours I could already work with the robot on my own. Field robots seem very complex, but in practice they are very easy to work with.”

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Reception of the machine and training with an expert. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot
Reception of the machine and training with an expert. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot

How did it go once you really started working with the robot? What went well, and what didn‘t?

“Since I had already seen the machine run on my domain, I knew what it was capable of before I officially started. I remember a few electronic components failed, which were quickly replaced. There were no other major problems. As always when you start working with a new machine, it took me a few days to adjust and calibrate things so that the machine could eventually do its work completely autonomously. This is why it is so important to have an expert on site during the first few days, so that you can work together on the final details and the machine can be used as soon as possible as it was intended.

This year I started a little later in the season. I have decided to install new tools on the robot so that the machine can take over even more work from me. Like any change, it took a little time to find the right tools and the right configuration to install them on the machine. As with any change, it takes some time to find the right tools and the right configuration. We are still working on that, but I am not worried. Although we are later than usual, I am confident that the robot will soon catch up.”

How is service and maintenance organised?

“We pay 4,500 euros annually for maintenance and service, on a subscription basis. For that amount, the manufacturer provides subscriptions for GPS and other communication systems, a telephone hotline that we can reach 24 hours a day for support, software updates and personal assistance. In most cases, the manufacturer provides real-time feedback on the machine. They identify and analyse problems quickly, can take over the robot remotely and solve problems remotely, sometimes even before I realise there is a problem. If a problem persists, the manufacturer sends the local distributor to solve the problem on site. This can take anywhere from half a day to a day. It is important to realise that field robots are constantly evolving, especially in terms of software. In the period of 1 year, a dozen new remote-control versions and 4 software updates have been launched and remotely installed in the robot.”

I am kind of back in control of my time

Did you have to adjust the vineyard to make it suitable for the robot?

“The modifications to my plots were minimal knowing that I already used to cultivate the soil with the tractor and with mechanical intervines. I still had to protect the drip system and the few boundaries present in my plots, to avoid tearing them up. I also shortened some rows to give the robot enough space to make its turns, nothing very costly.

As for my working methods, I think they are much less restrictive than before. The robot allows me to work the soil at 4-5 km/h, which is twice as fast as with the tractor. So, my planning is much more flexible than before. Since the more the robot works, the more profitable it is, I make more passes and more regularly.

When the robot is working autonomously, I can also devote myself to other tasks in the same plot of land while monitoring the robot. I make phone calls, I do some trellising, I prune… I am kind of back in control of my time.”

The more the robot works, the faster it pays for itself

How do you use the robot? How has the robot evolved since you started working with it?

“In only one year, the machine has already made a lot of progress, especially thanks to its regular updates. It now turns twice as fast in the half-turns, the reliability has clearly improved with less stops than at the beginning. It happens that the machine runs for 6 hours without me having to intervene. Of course, not everything is perfect yet, but it is progressing very quickly!

In 2021, the machine performed about 140 hours of tillage with its electric intervines, which is equivalent to 280 hours of tractor time saved. It has worked on 35 hectares, making between 3 to 5 passes per plot depending on the weed pressure in each plot. Depending on the plots, the batteries last 12 to 18 hours, then it takes between 5 to 8 hours to recharge them.

For this season, I would like the robot to take over the tillage with crumbling discs and Kress fingers, which would allow me to save even more tractor hours. The objective is to continue to delegate tasks to the robot, to make it work as many hours as possible and on as many hectares as possible. The more it works, the faster it pays for itself.”

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The robot working in autonomous mode. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot
The robot working in autonomous mode. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot

How do you imagine your robot evolving in the coming years?

In the short term, I would like the robot to do 100% of the soil work on the 35 hectares of the domain, which from my point of view is the most time-consuming task. And I want to have it work on more hectares in the next few years since I am currently thinking of expanding the domain.

Initially, I had in mind that the robot would only work the soil. But I know that the manufacturer is working on a confined spraying system and that it is progressing well. In the end, the more I use the robot and the more I think about automating the spraying, I no longer limit myself in terms of possibilities..

In the longer term, there are also other time-consuming tasks that I would like to automate. For the moment, these are only ideas, but once we have automated the soil cultivation, we will focus on other tasks.”

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The Vitibot cultivating the soil and getting rid of weeds. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot
The Vitibot cultivating the soil and getting rid of weeds. - Photo: Maxence Guillaumot

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

“It is hard to give advice, I think every project is different. The only advice I can give is to be well-informed, collect information from other users and manufacturers. Do not hesitate to test the various solutions on the market in real conditions and, if possible, on your own plots. This allows you to see whether you‘re comfortable working with the machine and it will give an idea of its potential. Before investing, it is essential that you know on what soil and in what parts of your fields you will be able to use the robot.”

Want to know more about the Bakus robot? See our buying guide here.

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Maxence Guillaumot Product and Market Analyst, AgTech Market