No, It's Not an UFO. Just an Awesome Drone in Your Vineyards!

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William Metz, the founder of Precision Vine (www.precisionvine.com) answered my questions about the Drone-Based Technologies used in the vineyards! Here you go:

Could you tell us about your personal story and what Precision Vine is about?

I studied viticulture and enology at California Polytechnic University in California and quickly fell in love with the wine industry. During my studies, I took several breaks and gap years working in the California wine industry and in New Zealand. Through formal and informal education, I became very interested in the concept of precision viticulture. I came to Switzerland to study at Changins, where the subject of my master’s thesis was how to use drones for remote sensing in viticulture, and how to process and transform the raw information collected so that it can accurately measure certain agronomic indicators. Afterward I received an industry-sponsored fellowship from the World Wine Symposium to explore the potential of this technology by working with winemakers in major wine regions across Europe. Since then, I started Precision Vine as a conduit to bring this technology to the industry and to develop it further.

How do winemakers and vine growers benefit from drone technology? 

Drones are a great way to take high-resolution photos of vineyards; similar images can be obtained from an airplane and, to some extent, a satellite. It all falls under remote sensing technology. Remote sensing is can automate several aspects of scouting, recording, and communicating vineyard observations and data. I will give two use cases as examples of how growers/wineries can benefit:

• First would be the measurement and delineation of vigor expression of vines, or, more simply, how fast they are growing. The rate of vegetation can be measured with several indexes that use reflectance of near-infrared light to measure the activity of chlorophyll in the plants’ leaves. This factor very closely linked to terroir, where one or several factors of the vineyard’s environment is regulating the growth of vines at any moment. These differences in plant physiology manifest not only in the vegetation of the plant, but also in the chemical composition and rate of maturity of the fruit. So a winemaker may be very interested to map this information, both to fine-tune vineyard management but also to guide the harvest and winemaking plan.

• A second use case would be the identification and prospection of virus infection. Many viruses can have large economic consequences for growers through yield reduction, delayed maturity, increased cost in controlling the insect vector, and price penalties for low quality. The more viruses a vineyard has, the faster it spreads, and eventually, there is an economic point at which the vineyard needs to be pulled out and replanted. The best defense for these viruses is to proactively scout for infected vines, cut them out and replace them the following spring.

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When a vine is infected with a virus (leaf roll, for example), the symptoms eventually express themselves in a discoloring of leaves. Within the plant, however, the virus is affecting metabolic pathways in a very specific way, even before the symptoms can be seen visually. This change in the physiology of the plant can be seen and measured through the use of hyperspectral sensors, which measure many different wavelengths of light (or “colors”) as opposed to human eyes, which see only three wavelengths: red, green and blue.

The automation of virus scouting allows a grower to localize each infected vine to be eliminated factor in the number of new plants that to be ordered from the nursery.

How would you link the use of technology with higher grape quality?

Many wine makers have trouble dealing with heterogeneity. Some terroirs are rather homogenous, but most are variable as a function of changing soil depth and composition. The way the plants behave in that soil is dependent on climate and weather.

Outside of quality, there are many use cases that fall into the category of asset management. If a vineyard is infected with a virus, it is important to know what percentage of plants are infected so that the vineyard can be replanted when it reaches an economic threshold.

What are the metrics to evaluate the health of a vineyard? How does it help grape growers to manage pests and diseases?

The best metrics are most likely the rate of infection of the various diseases. How much mildew infection is there each year, how much virus, and how much fruit rot? Different diseases are linked:  virus that delays maturity will increase the risk of late-season botrytis immensely, especially so in any climate threatened by late-season rains.

I think most growers will use profitability as their key metric of vineyard health. Can the vineyard make high quality grapes at a decent yield, and if not, why? Is the limiting factor the environment, or underlying terroir, or is it something variable and controllable in the scope of vineyard management?  Does the market price of the grapes or bottle price of the wine justify the labor and resources to mange those variables?

I think we often forget how much the market plays into things.  Growers in regions with high price points for grapes will always have more tools and resources than those producing wine at the lower price points.

What are the cost implications to use this technology? Is it feasible for small-scale growers as well?

There is a large efficacy of scale. Managing several small vineyards is much more expensive than maintaining one large one. Of course, this economic handicap can be overcome at an induvial level by surveying an entire village or even region with a large enough critical mass of customers.

Average pricing for our customers in Europe is 140 euro per hectare for a seasonal subscription, with several analysis and reports from flowering to harvest. The usability for small farmers depends on the use case. Critical study of the distribution of canopy structure and health might not provide any real actionable insights to a single-person operation covering 5ha. On the other hand, strong prospection of virus is a regional issue that has implications for the entire regional industry.

What are your biggest markets? 

We are a young company and still establishing our customer base and distribution network. Today, we have customers in France, Germany, Italy and California, and are establishing distribution partnerships in South America, Australia and New Zealand.

The easiest entry points right now in Europe are high-quality wineries with sizeable vineyard holdings, particularly those with a strong motivation to strategically and dynamically segment vineyards in order to meet the winemaking needs of several product lines. In places like California, we see some traction in the negociant side of the business as a tool of communication between growers and grower-relations departments of wineries.

What do you think should be developed to make the technology more efficient?

A lot of cool technology is being developed that will help to advance all types of precision agriculture and precision viticulture as a subset. Future developments should focus on ROI for the growers and causation of phenomena, rather than just correlation. Efforts should be put into the development of new sensors and techniques to measure several isolated variables, which will go a long way in this regard.

I’m more and more convinced that low cost IOT (internet of things) enabled sensors implanted within the vineyard will enable more site-specific viticulture and will complement remote sensing.

In the end all of these innovations act as some sort of decision making tool- the best ones will supplement the growers knowledge and reliably guide his hand.