Drones & Vineyards – technology that’s pleasing to the palate

July 20, 2018 | #All

Unpredictable weather conditions, pest infestation and resource-heavy traditional farming techniques are causing Australian and indeed global vignerons to look to the skies for help. One of the most promising solutions that has emerged over the past few years is the use of drone technology.

Drones are now giving winegrowers a clearer, faster, more reliable and particularly accurate picture of what is happening across the vineyard at any time. From determining the quality of grapes and harvest estimates, to pest control and irrigation management, drones provide a competitive edge to vignerons that engage this technology.

So what key data can drone technology provide winegrowers?

Identifying vine vigour

In simple terms, ‘vigour’ refers to the growth rate of a grapevine. It is affected by many factors including soil, fertiliser, weather conditions and pest infestation. It is important to note that both high and low vigour can be damaging to wine production. High vigour can results in a larger berry size which weakens flavour, while low vigour can result in undernourished berries which alters wine taste. So it is essential vigour is correctly balanced to achieve optimum quality grapevines.

To manage vigour, drones are now allowing wine growers to map vineyards and take imagery using multispectral cameras. These images are then stitched together and the composite image is processed by an Enhanced Vegetation Index computer algorithm. The colours of these images makes vine vigour (both high and low) visible allowing wine growers to identify where issues are and to act in a timely and appropriate manner.

Pest detection

A major benefit for vignerons, drones (carrying the appropriate payload) have the ability to remotely sense each plant instead of ‘panels’ of grapevines – dramatically improving pest detection. They also have the capacity – with multiple sensors engaged – to georeference the information making it easy for the vigneron to identify the specific vines.

The colours being captured by these multispectral cameras are also benefiting wine growers. For example, with data collected in 270 bands of colour (as opposed to three bands in RGB), data can be defined as ‘fingerprints’ and the known characteristics of phylloxera (a pest that attacks vine roots) identified. This is a significant advance over traditional pest detection.

As important, drone use is non-invasive so eliminating the need for vignerons to clamber around and damage the vines. The other benefit is that with no direct vine contact, there is less risk of spreading pests and disease to other parts of the vineyard.

Overall, this technology provides growers with an accurate and rapid pest assessment of their vineyard. It gives growers a visual map that allows them to see the areas of infestation by phylloxera or those at risk of infestation.

With early detection, an accurate and targeted approach to managing phylloxera can be undertaken.

Mapping for optimal grape harvesting  

Timely vineyard (drone) mapping also allows for the calculation of the optimal grape harvesting time. Data collected at mapping during ‘flower burst’ and then at timed intervals throughout the season, allows for essential Baume measurements to be taken. These are essentially density measurements of liquids and in the case of wine grapes, their optimal sugar to flavour ratio – allowing winegrowers to determine the optimal time for grape harvest.

So what drone technology solutions are ideal for vignerons?

There are, of course, multiple mapping drones and technology available.

Globally, the Delair manufactured DT18 AG has been remarkably successful in vineyard applications. This is a fixed-wing drone (as opposed to being a rotocopter), that allows for large scale mapping (it can cover more than 1300 hectares in a single flight), sensing, monitoring and inspection across the vineyard.

It is a durable and reliable solution for intensive field use and increases productivity thanks to better yields during data collection (multiple field mapping). It can be hand launched (it only needs five minutes of prep to get ready for deployment), has a two-hour flight time and is fully certified for Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) – a must-have for large-scale coverage.

From a safety perspective, it features ‘real-time’ front video and autopilot fail-safe mechanisms.

For imagery and sensing, it comes with an embedded MicaSense RedEdge Multispectral camera. This remarkable camera has the ability to produce narrow and calibrated spectral bands with near infrared capability which, as noted, is beneficial in both vigour and pest detection. It also produces frequencies of light that work in with globally recognised crop indexes – Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and Normalized Difference Red Edge (NDRE).

Overall, this technology provides vignerons with an accurate measure of not just crop vigour and pest detection, but detailed health and growth data.

DJI Phantom 4

With precision hovering, tap-to-fly technology, visual tracking and extended flight time, the Phantom 4 is also the perfect drone choice for vigneron applications.

You can rapidly switch flight modes to meet your needs for simple but intelligent navigation.

Flight time is 28 minutes – enough to cover large vineyards in a single sortie. In real terms this means an effective range of 5km with complete control and a live 720p HD view of everything the camera sees.

Overall, both of these options provides vignerons with an accurate measure of not just crop vigour and pest detection, but detailed health and growth data.

Must have technology for the modern vigneron!

Getting underway

If you are new to drone technology or simply want to learn more, we highly recommend you speak to a UAV specialist that can advise you on both drone options and the best approach to their commercial use in applications such as winegrowing.

Sphere Drones is arguably Australia’s leading source of expertise on commercial drone technology solutions in Australia.

Their Sydney-based operation is a state-of-the-art solutions development facility with some of the UAV industry’s leading personnel – making it (or their website) a logical first step to learn more about or identify a solution for your commercial needs.  

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