Having attended a wonderful wine tasting last night at a former professor's house, I've been feeling particularly oenophilic. During the tasting the professor told us about a lot of the technology vineyard owners have started using to track their crops. Since vines produce different fruit depending on shade, temperature, amount of water, type of soil, and so on, a good vineyard owner needs to know all about the different conditions all over his or her vineyard -- and small, cheap sensor technology only makes that easier. This of course led me to the natural conclusion: my wine could only be better if a robot is involved!
So what can robots do for a wine geek like me? I could purchase my very own "Robo-sommelier" to see if I'm actually getting what I'm buying -- using infrared light, it can tell what the type of the wine is without even opening it -- or it could learn my tastes and be able to recommend a wine to pair with my dinner.
Before the wine gets to my table, a vineyard owner might use an automated tractor to care for the vines. It can navigate using the wires that the vines grow on and can tow a sprayer or other equipment, preventing a human from having to do the long, dull task of driving the tractor through a huge vineyard. A 5-DOF robotic hand combined with a vision system might be doing some of the harvesting or care for the bunches of grapes on the vine. A friend at the wine tasting with me mentioned having seen one vineyard in which a robotic system rotated and tipped bottles slightly each day as they aged.
The agriculture industry is really embracing robotics and automation (Rocona is one example; John Deere and others are following suit), but it will be interesting to see if the wine industry actually adopts the technologies being created for them. Vineyard owners pride themselves on understanding their crops and how climate conditions will affect their output; sommeliers and wine aficionados are proud of their tasting abilities and standards. Will these people really want to hand over their art to machines?