The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects the use of agriculture drones to grow to 80% of the commercial farming market within the next 10 years, totaling a market share of US$76 billion. Within this booming sector, an interesting niche has emerged among producers of wine—precision viticulture is quickly becoming a trending area of research in American and European vineyards.
Unlike most commercial crops, which favor high yields and fast growth rates, grapes in wine production are subject to more sensitive factors. If the growth rate of the grapes is too high they may not ripen properly. More importantly, the optimal ripeness and harvest period can vary among the 10,000+ varieties of wine grapes that exist. Grapes are also susceptible to a large number of bacterial, fungal, parasitic and viral diseases which are difficult to contain and can spread rapidly.
Until recently, farmers looking to monitor water saturation levels and presence of unwanted insects were limited to satellite or airplane imagery, spare the tedious process of inspecting plants manually one at a time. Drones are able to provide a better solution for the challenges facing traditional methods because they are much less expensive to operate, subject to fewer government regulations, and it is easier to plan and execute flight paths for meaningful results.
What is particularly important as it relates to wine production is a drone’s ability to produce normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) imagery, which is basically an assessment of the amount of live green vegetation present on an area of land.
For example, one group of university researchers in Switzerland recently mapped the historic Chateau de Chatagnereaz. The only information they had available was the year that the vines were planted and the type of root stock. Combining NDVI imagery with a survey of the soil (also conducted using a drone), they were able to precisely determine the frontiers of various soil types, which need to be managed differently on areas of the estate. Researchers were able to identify higher vigor than necessary in some areas and resolved to use less fertilizer on these areas thereby optimizing growth, reducing costs and improving their impact on the natural environment.
Other important data that can be collected for vineyards using agriculture drones includes growth rates, canopy cover, soil temperature, moisture levels, sunlight absorption, ripeness and the presence of disease. In areas like California, which is experiencing its fifth year of drought, access to this information may be key in producing the perfect balance of acidity and sweetness in the final product.