Drones & Grape Vineyards - An Unlikely Match Reshaping the Industry
Today’s high-end, advanced drones are much more than entertaining gadgets. They are helping reshape many industries. One of those industries is in viticulture. In the wine-growing industry, drones allow for fast, detailed, accurate imagery of grapes and efficient delivery of chemicals and nutrients. So let’s discuss how these advanced UAVs can aid winemakers and take a look at the major perks of using drones for grape-growing.
How Drones Reduce Manual Labor In Viticulture
The cultivation and harvesting of grapes to make mine has traditionally required, and to this day still requires, a great deal of manual effort. Even so, the wine-growing industry can benefit from innovative technological advancements such as drones. Here are some of the most effective ways in which drone technology can introduce some efficiencies and reduce some of the manual labor required in the wine-growing industry:
The vineyards in California, much like those in Europe, are often on a much larger scale than those on the East Coast. Performing manual and ground-based inspections of a vineyard that stretches for several hundred acres or more is simply not a practical task. A medium to high range drone has a battery life of at least 20 to 30 minutes. During that time, a drone can cover over a hundred acres and capture detailed imagery of the vineyard.
You can then use the captured images to create NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) maps and even elevation mapping. With this data, you can observe the areas with low and high plant vigor. This data will allow you to adjust the fertilization and irrigation for specific areas and improve the overall grape quality of your entire vineyard.
With an aerial map, you can quickly tell if any changes are happening in your vineyard. You can get a quick glance at any problematic areas or map any rows that need thinning before you even set foot in the vineyard. In other words, you are able to develop a more efficient vineyard management plan. For example, if you have a vast area with weak or low plant vigor, you can wait longer to harvest it or address that issue individually.
Lastly, looking at it from a large-scale perspective, drones can also help you do routine maintenance of not only the grapes but the irrigation lines as well. Aerial intelligence will conveniently show you any areas where you might need to do line repair.
Besides large-scale inspection, drones can be instrumental in creating 3D models and planning your vineyard. You can set your imagination free and plan the perfect vineyard with accurate data gathered by your drone.
You can dabble with different ideas, where you want to plant, how the drainage will look in each area, or where you’ll put the specific buildings you plan on erecting on your property. The winemaking business is one that requires a lot of careful planning and preparation, and a drone can help you get off the ground in the right direction.
Efficient Disease Detection
Because drones can fly so low, they are an excellent tool for large-scale control and mitigation of any potential grapevine diseases. Higher-end drones can provide you with superior image accuracy. This allows you to see and assess the leaf patterns to determine if any specific parts of your vineyard are troubled by diseases like the leaf roll virus.
Even when compared to the top-tier and more expensive satellite imaging technology, drones offer significantly better results. Because drones can fly close to the canopy, they can take higher-resolution images. This, in turn, helps winemakers make better-informed decisions and develop more effective solutions.
Regardless of how accessible your vineyard is, drones will always be significantly more efficient in covering its area than a human can do with a tractor or on foot. There are already advanced agricultural drones that can effectively apply plant protection fluid directly above the crops.
The more expensive models can carry upwards of 4 gallons (15 liters) or more. With this amount of fluid, you can effectively spray several thousand square feet in the span of ten minutes without even breaking a sweat.
Viticulture is a challenging trade, and some seasons just won’t be favorable towards your grapes. Droughts, overly hot summer temperatures, and wildfires can be unforgiving, especially on the West Coast of the US. The 2017 and 2020 wildfires in California are some of the largest the state has ever seen and a prime example of this.
In such circumstances, grape vineyards are bound to get burned entirely or at least heat scorched. Examining the vines row by row from the ground is a tedious and impractical way of going about it. On the other hand, satellite imagery and airplane shots are too expensive. Again, the best solution is to use a drone to map the vineyard quickly.
The Future of Viticulture
Drone technology has already moved away from being just a piece of novelty technology for enthusiastic pilots. Today, it’s frequently used by winegrowers looking to improve the quality and consistency of their grapes.
With all of this said, there are still some impediments, as this technology is still relatively young. The battery life of the current drones still isn’t enough to support a full day of work. Of course, this is easily mitigated by purchasing additional batteries to use as spares while you charge the batteries you’ve depleted.
Additionally, the cost of such an investment is certainly a deterring factor for some wineries, as a top-tier agricultural drone can cost over ten thousand dollars. This isn’t something many winemakers are ready to commit to, even though it is the best long-term solution.
However, these challenges shouldn’t be deal-breakers for anyone looking to invest in drone technology for their vineyard. These costs will be offset by the reduction in the long-term costs needed to maintain large-scale vineyards. Equally importantly, they can also considerably cut back the time needed to plan and support proper vineyard management.
As drone manufacturers are constantly improving their products, agricultural drones are only set to get better in the next few years. With drone technology still in the relatively early stages of development and quickly increasing in popularity, we can expect to see additional features and capabilities for drones which will provide us with as-yet unimaged new use cases for drones for vineyard management. Drone technology is certain to be a vital part of the future of viticulture.