An innovative electric autonomous tractor tackles labor-intensive field tasks with the help of wine industry collaborators.
By Laurie Wachter
New technologies are increasingly delivering creative solutions for a variety of winery and vineyard operations. AI provides real time feedback during winemaking, steam systems reduce water use, filtration technologies improve wine quality and robotics speed bottling lines. Vineyards are deploying sensors to monitor everything from irrigation to disease and smoke exposure. While some winemakers and viticulturists are integrating these solutions as they emerge, many are hesitant.
“We set our Alexander Valley estate up for machine harvesting 15 years ago,” says David Duncan, proprietor, chairman and CEO of the historic Silver Oak Cellars family-owned wineries. “Back then, if you said ‘machine harvesting’ in Napa or Sonoma County,” people would say, ‘Oh no, they do that in Lodi; we don’t do that here. It’s all hand-picked.’
“But we have found that the quality of that fruit is excellent, and there are many advantages.”
A technological shift
Today, machine harvesting is mainstream, and vineyard technology innovation has shifted toward remote control and autonomous machinery to increase efficiency. Sonoma County farmer and entrepreneur Tim Bucher recently introduced TeleFarmer, a software and electric tractor combo that lets one person operate two or three tractors simultaneously to handle labor-intensive mowing, spraying and transporting tasks. He calls it “cloning the farmer.”
Bucher grew up on a Sonoma County dairy farm and started his first vineyard when he was 16, which he traded up to start Trattore Farms while learning grape-growing and the wine business by helping at friends’ vineyards.
“I’ve been automating my farm for decades,” Bucher says. “We have water filtration and irrigation systems I can run from anywhere. I’ve even fermented wine from China. But I couldn’t touch field operations. Instead, I’d come home from work and spend all night on a tractor.”
His penchant for automation comes from 30 years working with Apple, Microsoft, Dell and other tech companies, including his own. His latest start-up, Agtonomy, integrates these two career paths to create a climate-smart ag-tech solution for farmers who share his need to find field hands and manage labor costs. Bucher integrated technology and equipment from manufacturers like Bobcat, which collaborated on the start-up’s fully electric chassis. The TeleFarmer Solution also includes software to convert tractors into remotely operated vehicles and an app to plan and execute tasks.
“Ag-tech innovation has to lead with farmers and their day-to-day needs and frustrations,” says Bucher. “The best innovation happens when there is collaboration, because 1 + 1 = 3.”
In addition to collaborating with manufacturers, Bucher sought input from wine industry colleagues such as Will Drayton at Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) and Duncan, two companies that are part of Agtonomy’s paid pilot program. After a 2006 fire destroyed Silver Oak’s historic Oakville property, Duncan rebuilt it with a strong sustainability mindset. The winery received the highest-level LEED certification, runs on solar energy, treats wastewater using a membrane bioreactor and cleans barrels with an advanced steam system.
“I think Agtonomy is on a similar tack,” says Duncan, “although it’s taking a slightly different approach ― not so much a hydrocarbon issue as a ‘doing farming better’ one. The industry has moved away from phosphates to minimizing the impact in the vineyard. But you still have to get in the vineyard and do weed control, soil work and amendments. I think looking at things like compaction and operators is important.”
“Treasury Wine Estates and its Americas division have a long track record of innovation and research for the wine industry,” says Drayton, senior director of technical viticulture, sustainability & research. “We look forward to using TeleFarmer’s insights and abilities to identify opportunities for specialty farmers, as well as improving our efficiency by running multiple machines simultaneously.“
Bucher points out that TeleFarmer’s “smaller, more sustainable vehicles can be swarmed, and there’s no limit to how many tractors you can swarm. The key is to uptrain your workers.”
Electric tractors and sustainability
Agtonomy’s decision to build electric tractors “is essential to our energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation efforts,” adds Drayton. “We are striving for a low/no-carbon future and to remove fossil fuels as early as possible. By working with Agtonomy’s self-driving technology and highly efficient features, such as the self-changing battery, we can create a safer and more sustainable environment for our teams.”
Duncan also considers electric tractors critical, noting, “Under-vine management is the biggest issue, and there’s real potential for weed control around the trunks, as there aren’t good tools for that. The torque of electric motors immediately transfers driver input to the wheel train instead of having to travel through the pistons.”
TeleFarmer addresses this with perception stacks, which use machine learning to read the tractor’s sensor data and accurately navigate underneath a sunless canopy, manipulating attachments that can weed close to the trunks with high accuracy.
This group of companies and colleagues will expand and continue to evolve Agtonomy’s TeleFarmer solution, demonstrating the innovative power of collaboration in the wine industry.
Laurie developed her love of analytics and fascination with automation while advising consumer packaged goods companies, including Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and the Altria Group, on their direct-to-consumer marketing. Today, she writes about innovation in food & beverages for a global client base.