Between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am, Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore., is mostly quiet. Through the stillness each night, however, a figure can be seen moving among the vines: an 11-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide robot.
It’s how the grape grower—responsible for some of the region’s most acclaimed pinot noir—fights the ultimate crop-destroying pest: powdery mildew.
Founder Jim Bernau was installing ultraviolet lamps in the winery’s HVAC systems last year to aid in the disinfection against COVID when he was reminded of a study, done by researchers at Cornell, about how the same light was being used to kill fungi in agriculture through the use of autonomous, GPS-tracked robots.
“This is a real solution,” he says, “and we need to move as an industry as quickly as we can in applying it so we can eliminate the use of dangerous chemicals.”
While the study was initially conducted on the East Coast, Bernau was determined to be the first to bring the new tech to his farm in Oregon. And he did: Last summer, the robot was deployed on West Coast soil for the first time.
Instead of using fungicides like sulfur to ward off mildew, the robot is equipped with tubes of low-grade UV light, which is most effective at night, when the fungi’s DNA is susceptible to injury.
After a year of use on his own vines, Bernau says the benefit of UV light on his grapes has “basically confirmed” the research he placed his bet on. So far, the robotics and its operation have cost Bernau $75,000.
The next hurdle is convincing others in the agriculture industry to embrace the technology.
“Farmers are busy people,” says Bernau. “They don’t have a lot of time to experiment with ideas like this. But it’s my role to show farmers this will work, this will save money, and this will reduce the strain and stress on their employees without any negative environmental impacts.”