University researchers develop 'Pied Piper' robot to protect vineyard from growing threat of pests: 'This technology has a lot of promise'

Researchers are putting a more positive twist on a popular folklore character, with a "Pied Piper" robot helping to protect vineyards from pests without harmful chemicals.

As detailed by Wine Spectator, scientists at Oregon State University have designed a robot prototype that uses artificial intelligence to prevent treehoppers and stink bugs from mating.

It does this by sending out "harmonic vibrations" that end up "effectively crowding the conversation and making it hard for male treehoppers to find females."

"We're sort of training this little robot musician to sit out in a vineyard and listen for these bugs and do something very typical in music, which is call and response, the Marco Polo," OSU assistant professor Chet Udell told Oregon Public Broadcasting, as reported by the wine outlet.

Stag Hollow Winery, which is located in premier wine region Willamette Valley, is one of the wineries testing the prototype, which was inspired by the work of Italian entomologists Dr. Rachele Nieri and Dr. Valerio Mazzoni.

Wine Spectator explained the research duo found that using "vibration mating disruption," or VMD, was a noninvasive and safe way to prevent treehoppers from taking over vineyards in Italy over a five-year span, and they initially published their findings in 2019.

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This advancement of this technology is great news for wine lovers.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pests are responsible for destroying 20-40% of all types of crops worldwide. However, rising global temperatures have made pests an increasing concern — along with the impacts of extreme weather linked to a warming planet.

For some wine growers, this has meant an increased dependence on pesticides, which not only contaminate the environment with toxins but also contribute to the production of heat-trapping gases that are overheating our planet.

Stag Hollow, which states its commitment to sustainability on its website, is hopeful that OSU's prototype will help support that goal.

"I've been working with [professor of entomology Dr. Vaughn Walton] for a number of years on this technology and identifying issues surrounding the disease carried by these insects," Mark Huff, owner and winemaker at Stag Hollow, told Wine Spectator. "This technology has a lot of promise, presenting a great alternative solution to pesticides, which is what it's all about."

It's unclear when the prototype will move into further development stages, but researchers may be able to expand its ability to protect agriculture from more types of pests.

"I think the key thing here is that it only affects the target insect, and it will not affect anything else. It's cleaner for everyone that lives here. It's clean for the environment, better for our salmon and our rivers," Walton told Oregon Public Broadcasting in November, when OSU was working with the device to learn the communication patterns of brown marmorated stink bugs.

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