‘Vitibot’, from the UTC Daniel Thomas Innovation Centre to the French vineyards

Students’ associations at UTC are always highly rewarding places, if you want to do sports, dance, use a Fab’Lab, join the Junior Enterprise, you name it …. Students are encouraged to sign up with one of the numerous associations on campus. Now, here is a choice that turned out to be less anodyne than you can imagine. Cédric Bache, a member of the UTCoupe Robotics Club when he came to UTC has created his own robotics-intensive start-up, viz., Vitibot.

‘Vitibot’, from the UTC Daniel Thomas Innovation Centre  to the French vineyards

Cédric Bache, graduated from UTC in 2015, majoring in Computer sciences & Applications and his discovery of the UTCoupe association unleashed a real passion for robots. The idea of creating a start-up came naturally: “Both my parents are winegrowers and so I started thinking about the possibility of applying robotics to this area, by automating a vehicle that is already used in the vineyard”.

Cédric began developing his project while still at UTC, with another Computer science student, Virgile Wozny, choosing the most relevant CCs (credit courses). “In a particular CC on virtual reality (VR), we modelled the vines, plus the robot and its sensors and we also registered in a CC on driverless vehicles. Today we are making really good use of the things we learned in these CCs, notably in respect to sensors, control and automated guidance systems”.

On paper, the underlying principles are very simple to understand: suppose you have a vehicle already used by winegrowers. You then make this vehicle driverless with remote controls connected to a computer. The ‘robot vehicle’ is then fitted with laser and ultrasonic sensors, and on-board GPS station and 2 cameras to have a perfect vision of the robot’s environment. There are also special chips to connect with a mobile network.

Automating the vehicle this way offers numerous advantages which Cédric details: “Firstly, the vehicle can be multi-purpose: phytosanitary spray campaigns, mechanical weeding … secondly the winegrower can avoid serious accidents due the vehicle overturning on steep slopes and likewise can avoid getting sprayed with chemicals. Thirdly, the robot can work at night and thereby use less spray chemicals profiting from absence of sunlight (less evaporation), low winds, less rain. And the fact that the robot is connected to and controlled via a computer means that monitoring operations can be real-time with assistance instantly provided if a doubt arises in respect to the robot’s environment”.

Our two entrepreneurs in the launch phase of their start-up and business propose the robot as a commercial service to winegrowers. “We deliver the vehicle to the site chosen and programme it accordingly. This way we have been able to operate two prototypes to the full satisfaction of the winegrowers who accepted”. To complete the team, a third UTC graduate, Thomas Recouvreux, has joined Cédric and Virgile. Thomas will offer his know-how and experience as a developer-entrepreneur (he was a co-founder of Nemoplay, bought out in December 2015 by Weezevent, a specialist in on line ticketing ad registration).

In the long term, Vitibot envisions designing and building its own vehicles which our young engineers see as “very compact because of the on-board automation, all-electric which will allow the machine to retrieve and use converted potential energy generated by going downhill in the vineyards. We hope to have a first prototype ready for testing by late 2017”.