Automation to revolutionise the future

March 15, 2024 | 5 Min read
YOU own a large scale, remote vineyard and you’ve found the operator from heaven, who can manage the mowing, mulching, trimming, spraying.

YOU own a large scale, remote vineyard and you’ve found the operator from heaven, who can manage the mowing, mulching, trimming, spraying.

Who turns up, on time, every day.

Will hardly ever have a sick day and never needs a holiday.

Not everyone has that superstar operator just yet.

Well, actually, in Australia, only one person has – Wayne Ellis, at Duxton Vineyards.

And his operator’s name is Oxin.

It all sounds low key and very much at the prototype stage – but it’s not.

Oxin is up and running in New Zealand, its birthplace, and its creators are already raising their eyes to the horizon with so many millions of acres of potential orchards around the world.

A real game-changer, Oxin is more machine than human, more nuts, bolts, wiring, incredibly intricate technology and all mounted on rubber tracks.

And as its creators continue to refine its attributes, Oxin continues to evolve into the ultimate on-farm solution, first for the wine industry but eventually, inevitably, and probably sooner rather than later, it will expand into other sectors.

The brainchild of three Kiwi mates, Oxin has been proving itself the real deal in New Zealand’s wine-rich Marlborough district.

Mr Ellis says Duxton has been trialling an Oxin unit at its Euston vineyard, and as their 2400ha of grapes across the company’s NSW aggregation move into vintage, the autonomous viticultural vehicle (aka Oxin) is about to get a serious run-through.

Managed remotely by one operator, apart from doing all the above tasks, Oxin doesn’t slow down when the sun decides it’s going to bed. Instead, it can be pre-programmed to keep on trucking, right through the night, using its advanced sensors for navigation.

Unlike humans, Oxin also requires very little maintenance, so it will hardly ever be off work and its clever rubber track design reduces ground pressure.

In fact, Mr Ellis believes his walking down the rows would probably do more damage to the soil than Oxin.

With advanced sensors, data capture capabilities and connectivity, growers can review real-time data and video streams to make faster and better decisions in vineyard management.

But outside forces have been creating a seismic shift in agriculture, its technology and its machinery.

The shift from Clydesdales and oxen (yes, with an e) to tractors more than 100 years ago enabled farmers to work greater areas more efficiently. And until now, Smart Machine chief executive (that’s the company behind Oxin) Andrew Kersley says machinery and technology have been the backbone of the agricultural industry.

When engineer Walter Langlois recognised the need for a new revolution in tractor technology, he brought into the fold lifelong mates and product designers Kersley and Nick Gledhill, and it was the start of something big. Something beyond simple automation.

Developed in New Zealand in conjunction with Pernod Ricard Winemakers, the Oxin has been field-tested in one of the most diverse vineyard environments in the world.

The global drinks giant was the first wine producer in New Zealand to use the technology and is currently operating four units in its Marlborough vineyards.

Pernod Ricard Winemakers transformation director Alex Kahl​ says they expect to add five machines and will probably double that number in the future.

“The main advantages for us are around the quality of the work that the units do for us.

“Because they are autonomous and because all the implements that go on them are also controlled autonomously by the machine, you get a very repeatable and reliable job,” Mr Kahl says.

The fully autonomous tractor robots can be controlled via a single operator.

“For the first phase, it was just to do mowing and mulching and under-vine weed spraying. The second phase of functionality was to add on to that, leaf defoliation and trimming as well.

“And ultimately, the units would be doing a combination of all of those tasks, depending on what time of the year it is.

“So they never just do one thing, they're always doing at least two or three tasks as they go,” Mr Kahl said.

Starting a technology company in the heart of Marlborough comes with a range of advantages, and clearly they paid off for team Oxin, which has now outgrown its Blenheim base and is preparing to move its operation into full production.

Mr Kersley said their experience since the company’s inception was that starting out in Marlborough had proven to be a blessing.

“We’ve got a lot of grapes, a lot of hectares in a pretty small geographical area, which, now that I’m starting to explore international markets, is unique,” Mr Kersley explains.

“And then you throw things into the mix like NMIT (Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology), Bragato Research Institute, and the fact businesses operating in the region are globally connected.

“It does open up a huge number of opportunities internationally for us, which is great.”

Smart Machine was also kept afloat during harvest in February, buoyed by an injection of $600,000 from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.

“That funding has enabled us to focus on the future state,” he says.

“So starting to explore electrification and some of the challenges that come with doing that. And also, that was specifically to explore some new market opportunities within New Zealand, such as adapting for apple canopies.”

Mr Kersley says with more doors now starting to open for the company internationally, the amount of work they carried out in the early days to fully define the positioning of the Oxin felt validated.

“We are committed to delivering innovative solutions for the agriculture industry and are excited to take this important step towards achieving that goal with Duxton Vineyards and Wine Australia,” he added.

"This partnership presents an opportunity to showcase Oxin’s capabilities and how it can revolutionise the way that we approach viticulture. The Oxin machine being trialled by Duxton Vineyards has been designed to do different tasks to the original machines developed for the NZ market, accommodating for the differences in landscape and climate, which is also really exciting.”

In addition to benefits that include reduced costs and data analysis to inform operational decisions, Oxin promotes sustainable solutions, with the machine requiring fewer row passes, making less soil compaction and demonstrating an overall reduction in emissions.

Both Mr Ellis and Mr Kersley passionately believes the industry desperately needs it.

“Just take the past two seasons, when we have been rocked by some extreme weather events.

“They hurt everyone, with mildew and some pretty hefty production cuts. But that’s farming and we all know it can – and will – happen.

“The bigger problem our industry, and many farming industries, have been facing – and it’s getting worse, not better – is accessing labour where and when you need it.

“An innovation such as Oxin ... isn’t about replacing humans, it’s about filling gaps we no longer can,” Mr Ellis said.

Oxin will hardly ever have a sick day – called maintenance moments, which can be scheduled – and never needs a holiday or pay demands.

And speaking of rain, short of biblical proportions, Andrew says Oxin has the 

Armed with hi-tech sensors, Oxin allows growers to review real-time data and video streams, to make faster and better decisions in vineyard management.

Oxin might have begun its life with Pernod Ricard Winemakers in France and Duxton is the Australian connection, but who knows where it will go and into what markets in the future.





Categories Tractors & machinery

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