Keeping on the straight and narrow

By Debora MacKenzie A FRENCH company has invented an autopilot for the machines that tend some of the world’s most expensive plants—the grapevines of France’s top wine-growing regions. Throughout the growing season the vines have to be pruned and their diseases treated. To make the job easier the big estates have specially designed tractors with cabs that sit over the vines. But even skilled drivers damage some of the plants. Coverplant, an engineering firm in the town of Le Pian in the Médoc region, has developed a tractor that is steered by the wires that support the vines. Laurent Cadusseau, Coverplant’s director, says a small electric current is passed down the wires. A detector on the tractor picks up the magnetic fields generated by the current. The detector is coupled with a microprocessor which monitors the strength of the field. Because the field weakens as the detector moves away from the wire, this information can be used to guide the tractor between wires. When tested on the Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s estate, the system was able to steer the cultivator without injuring any plants. “The driver can concentrate on making sure everything is being done properly, as the heavy work of steering is done for him,
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