Grape idea: Hokkaido University’s sustainable robots offer respite for wine and pumpkin farmers in Japan
As one of the oldest wineries in Hokkaido founded in 1974, the firm produces 2,000 kL annually, with just 81 employees.
“There is a shortage of people on our farm and we cannot do enough weeding and pesticide application,” said Kimihiro Shimamura, president of Hokkaido Wine, and second-generation farmer.
Hokkaido Wine approached robotic agriculture expert, Professor Noboru Noguchi from the Research Faculty of Agriculture at Hokkaido University for a collaboration.
Professor Noguchi, who has been working on agriculture robots for more than 20 years, is trialing unmanned robots on the vineyard, using technology developed in his laboratory.
The robots are fitted with high-accuracy GPS to allow precise navigation. On the vineyard, through AI and 5G technologies, the robot can detect precipitation and areas requiring spraying.
Based on this information, it will spray the optimal amount of pesticides or fertilisers onto the grapes. “This way, it is good for the environment, since extra pesticides are not used.”
In addition, the unmanned robot is fully electric, which makes it a sustainable option for wine making farmers.
Shimamura told FoodNavigator-Asia: “It's still under testing, but robot automation has made it possible to work more efficiently.” The company also exports wine to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Hokkaido Wine hopes to commercialise this robot in five years.
Besides wine and robot development, Hokkaido Wine is also undertaking research on upcycling the by-products from wine making to develop health foods.
According to Professor Noguchi, the agriculture industry in Japan is suffering from an ageing population and shortage of experienced leaders.
“20 to 30 years ago, we already saw these challenges in manpower shortage, but now the situation has worsened.”
Professor Noguchi and his team have already developed more than 10 unmanned robots and tractors to perform agricultural work such as spraying pesticides and fertilisers for rice, wheat and soybean.
Most recently, the team developed a pumpkin harvesting robot, which comprises of the tractor, a robot hand, a robot arm, and a camera to detect ripe pumpkins.
Pumpkins are heavy crops, and a laborious job, especially for ageing farmers.
Professor Noguchi said this robot would be helpful to such farmers, and while it takes more time to harvest compared to manual work, the robot is able to operate into the night.
He is currently developing a robot for ocha (tea), as well as multiple small robots that work together instead of a large tractor.
Multiple small robots can reduce soil compaction with the same power of a large tractor, and is also safer when in operation.
Currently, the team conducting tests on both Hokkaido University’s experimental farms and farmlands in Hokkaido Prefecture.
Professor Noguchi said these robots also have potential for use in large scale farming regions like Australia, US, Brazil and EU as a sustainable option.