Imagine suitcase-size robots rolling between long rows of grapevines and stopping at particular plants to fine tune drip emitters for more or less water flow. They know where to go because an operating system has crunched thousands of data points to finger exactly which vines need help and where water is being wasted.

The project is called Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery, RAPID for short. And as RAPID research moves out of the labs and into Central Valley test vineyards, it has won an award, sparked excitement from ag influencers, and drawn interest from international investors. A patent application is pending.

The research team includes UC Merced computer science and engineering Professor Stefano Carpin, his graduate student Thomas Thayer, watershed expert and UC Merced engineering Professor Joshua Viers, UC Berkeley robotics and automation Professor Ken Goldberg, and UC Davis biology and engineering Professor Stavros Vougioukas.

“It’s a no brainer,” Carpin said about the innovative study, now starting its third year. “We need this kind of technology if we want to grow food, and in particular if we want to provide food in a sustainable way.”