A small company from Saint-Emilion, France, is sending its solar mower robot into the vineyards. Before entrusting it with other tasks.

It weighs around 10 kilos, is barely 30 centimeters high and can go up to… 500 meters per hour. Vitirover, the little robot-mower, embraces slowness, modesty and sobriety: a small revolution in the winemaking world. “Many agricultural companies use mechanization to produce bigger, stronger and faster equipment. We decided to do the opposite”, explains Arnaud de la Fouchardière, managing director of Vitirover.

Xavier David-Beaulieu, the engineer behind the project, came back to Saint-Emilion 10 years ago to help his brother with the family vineyard. He refused to use weed killer against the wild grass ruining grapevines’ growth and also wasn’t happy with mechanical solutions. Why not hand the tasks over to a robot? The engineer got down to work and came up with the concept of a self-sufficient machine, powered by solar panels.

In 2009, his very first vehicle, displayed at Vinitech international wine trade show, won the prize “Trophée Oenovation”, awarded for innovation in the wine industry. One year later, he founded Vitirover with Arnaud de la Fouchardière, the founder of several companies, such as Marcopoly, an electrical goods e-shop acquired by the operator France Télécom.

Mowing without damaging vine stocks

After 5 years of hard work and 3 million euros, the small robot, which gained early support from the Région Aquitaine and the French public investment bank bpi, is now on the market. Using GPS signals to find its way, the robot is programmed by a basic smartphone, can mow vine stocks up to 2 centimeters tall and remain on its own in the vineyard for weeks. “Vitirover doesn’t replace weedkiller but it’s an attractive alternative to classical mechanical solutions, which tend to tamp down the soils and damage vine stocks. We’re eager to try it”, says Christophe Gaviglio from the French Institute of Vine and Wine.

Vitirover-Les Echos

The development of the product has nevertheless taken longer than expected. “We thought we needed to make one prototype, but 4 were necessary”, notes Arnaud de la Fouchardière. The company, which employs 7 people, now needs to move on to the next stage. After raising 150,000 euros on the crowdfunding platform Happy Capital at the beginning of the year, Vitirover was able to deliver the product to its first clients; large vineyards always looking for the latest innovation, such as Château Ausone, Château Pape Clément or Cousino Macul; the biggest Chilean vineyard.

The small company is now seeking an additional 400,000 euros to invest in an assembly line and fulfill its next customer orders. “By next summer, we want to put around fifty robots in vineyards”, says Arnaud de la Fouchardière, who is also targeting other markets: parks, gardens, solar power plants, orchards and even huge American cemeteries. “Vineyards are hardest for the robot because it has to handle thousands of obstacles per acre. There are many other ways to use the device”, explains Arnaud de la Fouchardière.

The little robot also plans to broaden its skills. It is currently enrolled in Vineyard Vigiland & INNovative Ecological Rover, a European Program that could help it play a role in shaping the future of winemaking, an industry reliant on precision. Through sensors, the robot could gather precious information on vine health during its strolls. It could even act on the ground. “It could preventively spray the vine stocks that need it”, envisions Arnaud de la Fouchardière. One thing is clear: the company, whose headquarters are located in an old train station in Saint-Emilion, isn’t going anywhere. “When you sell your product abroad, the name Saint-Emilion gives you an undisputable credibility”, says Arnaud de la Fouchardière, smiling.

By Frank Niedercorn

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