Drones in the Vineyard: Uses, Benefits, Concerns & Key Players

Unpredictable weather conditions and the effects of climate change are causing vineyards to look to technology to solve their biggest problems. Interestingly, one of the most promising technological solutions that has emerged for vineyards today is drones. These aerial devices already play a role in military operations and retail package delivery. Could they revolutionize the wine industry as well?

By definition, drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that fly autonomously or by remote control. In addition to military and commercial drones, hobbyist drones have become more affordable and accessible to the general public. The purpose of this article is to explore the uses of drones in vineyards and how drone technology may help vineyards thrive. We’ll also highlight a few technology companies that specialize in drones for vineyard use and address the challenges that they must overcome to find their place in the industry.

What Drones Can Do for Vineyards

It’s impossible for farmers to keep an eye on thousands of acres of crops every day, which is what makes drone technology so attractive for vineyards. Drones can help determine the quality of grapes being grown and provide estimates of how many grapes will be produced in the next harvest.
Overall, drones can help give vineyard owners a clearer picture of what is happening in the vineyard. For example, they may be able to pinpoint zones where vigor is higher than desired to remove those zones from a fertilizer program. This is useful because if a vine’s growth is too vigorous, it can create a dense canopy that prevents sun exposure and ripening of the grapes. Vineyard owners can also monitor water saturation and pest damage to know where to spray insecticides with drone technology. Some vineyards have used tanks strapped to the sides of drones to spray their vineyards for diseases.

Droughts have plagued so many American vineyards in recent years. This is a major reason why farmers are looking to drones for help. Hail damage is another common concern. Drones can help inspect the fields to assess damage after hail storms.

How Drones Analyze Crops

It’s important for vineyard owners and managers to understand exactly how drones analyze crops to determine whether this technology is right for a particular business model. To start, multi spectral imagery in drones is able to detect anomalies that cannot be seen by the human eye. Many drones that are specialized for vineyard use have a field uniformity algorithm that helps quantify the relative density and health of the grapes.

Drones can also have sensors that measure temperature and humidity, and then they communicate that information through a transceiver. Based on drone data, soil moisture monitors can measure water volume at different soil depths as well. Essentially all of these capabilities play into a vineyard staff’s ability to look for patterns and crop issues to make recommendations and improve the health of their grapes. This is because drones can produce normalized difference vegetation index imagery that goes far beyond the manual capacity of any other monitoring method.
Tech Companies Using Drones

As drones have advanced technologically and gained prominence in a variety of industries, tech companies have become more specialized in the services they provide. One emerging niche is drone use for vineyards, and there are several companies that have positioned themselves as innovators in this field. Other technology companies are focused on specific agricultural crops, but these advancements could be applied to vineyards in the future.
Hawk Aerial has partnered with VineView Scientific Aerial Imaging and SkySquirrel Technologies to bring drone technology to vineyards. With this technology, vineyards can use calibrated vegetation index maps, leaf roll disease maps, and other features to make important growing decisions.

SkySquirrel has a Sqweo/Quanta vineyard-specific autonomous drone system that has proven effective for detecting grapevine disease and providing aerial diagnostics for grapevine health. The AQWEO QR-200 model, for example, has GPS autopilot, a multi-rotor for easy take-off and landing between crop rows, and industrial grade components.

Yamaha Precision Agriculture Division hopes to have its RMax and FAZER technology available to farmers by 2018. The company has remotely piloted helicopters designed for agricultural use that provide essential spraying services for pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. The devices can also be equipped with sensors to monitor crops for future treatment.

PrecisionHawk specializes in drones and aerial data analysis for many different industries, including agriculture, energy, insurance, and construction. It has 2D and 3D map processing, 11 crop analytics tools, early disease detection abilities, and professional-grade drone flight servicing.

3DR’s work uses a Solo drone with the Site Scan application to generate maps that identify crop stress and equipment issues, while also creating digital elevation models of the field. This company works with other industries as well, such as public safety, utilities, and telecom.

Leading Edge Technologies offers Sensefly fixed wing eBee’s and albris multi-rotor unmanned aerial systems. For the agriculture industry, this technology provides current aerial imagery in a user-friendly and fast way that is translated into accurate multiband orthomosaics. Although this company is active in the agriculture industry, it does not currently have a presence in vineyards.

Benefits of Vineyard Drones

There are many benefits of using drones in vineyards, which is why an increasing number of vineyard owners are interested in learning more about this technology. For the foreseeable future, drones represent the fastest and most precise way to obtain high-quality photos that identify distinct soil types and observe the soil’s effects on the vines. Modern drones provide high image resolution that is very valuable in this industry, especially in determining the ripeness of grapes for harvesting.

Practically speaking, they are easier to organize and more affordable than airplanes. And since drones can fly closer to the ground than planes, their images can be more accurate. Drones also provide vineyards with greater flexibility because aerial data can be obtained on-demand and according to the owner’s schedule.

In general, drones promise to promote a smarter and more sustainable form of agriculture. By some estimates, vineyards may be able to reduce spraying and watering by 30 percent, which equates to reduced costs and a lesser environmental impact. These benefits may mean greater potential for increased production and an ability to overcome the effects of climate change. Since vineyard monitoring has traditionally involved labor-intensive work, drones may help vineyards save money on labor costs and put their labor force to better use in other operations. In some parts of the country, vineyards have also expressed an interest in using infrared cameras on drones to scan for illicit activities on or near vineyard lands.

Kevin J. Gould, CEO of Hawk Aerial, LLC, told The Grapevine Magazine that new developments in vineyard map technology have helped eliminate inaccuracies that existed in older methods. He explained, “The new Calibrated Enhanced Vegetation Index maps use additional light bands and scientifically proven algorithms to suppress cover crops and allow map comparisons over time, weaknesses that plagued older NDVI maps.”

By switching from NDVI to EVI maps, growers can obtain much better data and apply that data to their decisions. Gould added, “Also, recently completed scientific testing has resulted in drone maps that now allow early detection of the devastating Leafroll disease in vines.” SkySquirrel endorsed the comments made by its partner, Hawk Aerial, when we reached out to this company for an interview.

We also connected with Brad Anderson, market development manager of the UMS Division at Yamaha Motor Corporation to get his thoughts on a promising feature of drone technology that vineyard owners might not know about yet. Anderson shared, “We believe one potential benefit from drone technology is a potential improvement in worksite conditions. We believe that there is a great deal of potential to improve working conditions by increasing the distance from the worker and the spray platform as well as eliminate the need to carry a heavy backpack up and down steep hillsides. We believe the use of a drone to do hillside spraying applications will limit the physical strain currently experienced by backpack sprayers.”

Concerns About
Drones in Vineyards

But despite all these promising uses and benefits, many vineyard owners and the general public have legitimate concerns about using drones as a normal part of business. There are privacy concerns at stake, especially since vineyard drones could potentially collect data from neighbors’ properties and the surrounding areas. Some vineyards have also expressed concern about tampering speculation regarding drone usage. The Federal Aviation Administration established new regulations for drones in August 2016 with rules for flying drones for commercial purposes. This means that vineyards need to understand these laws and comply with them to operate within those limitations.

Additionally, there is a significant initial cost involved in drone technology that is too great for many small and mid-sized vineyards to invest in. Regardless of a vineyard’s size or budget, there will be a learning curve and training required to effectively operate drones as a normal course of business.

It is possible that drone technology may alter how insurance companies price landholders and pool their risk. It’s also a possibility that drones could reshape how traders buy and sell commodities futures. There are still many questions about how drones will affect the wine industry in big-picture terms, which is why we connected with a few tech leaders to get an insider’s perspective.

Brad Anderson of Yamaha Motor Corporation shared with The Grapevine Magazine that one challenge facing drone technology in vineyards today is proof of concept. He said, “Drone technology offers a great deal of potential, but it must deliver on the efficiencies they can bring to vineyards. Drones are a new tool in vineyards, and we must work closely with farmers to identify and meet the needs they have to improve overall efficiencies.”

Hawk Aerial’s Kevin J. Gould told The Grapevine Magazine, “Drone technology is emerging rapidly in many sectors, and vineyard management is certainly one of them.” He went on to explain, “Flying at low altitudes with incredibly capable sensors, drones are now able to obtain images many times more accurate and detailed than airplanes or satellites. Until now, the biggest problem has been the capital cost, overhead and personal bandwidth required to purchase and operate a drone. At Hawk Aerial, vineyard owners can purchase a vineyard-specific SkySquirrel Technologies Aqweo drone system through us. Or they can use our soup-to-nuts professional drone flight and data services, relieving them of any involvement in data acquisition and processing.”

In regards to the cost, we asked Gould if he could provide an estimate of how much an investment in drone technology would cost the average U.S. vineyard. He started by telling us that some manufacturers are advertising agriculture drone systems for as little as $1,500, and that some map providers are using modified consumer cameras and generic map processing algorithms to assemble generic NDVI maps.

However, he went on to explain, “But neither of these simplistic approaches are sufficient to provide vineyard vigor information accurate enough to assist vineyard managers and viticulturists in making critical operational decisions. The drone, the camera, and the processing algorithms all need to be vineyard-specific and backed by scientific data. To obtain the quality of maps needed to drive improvements of 5% – 15% (or more) in annual wine grape crops valued at $4,000 – $40,000 per acre, growers should budget $60 – $120 annually per acre for advanced, professional vineyard drone flight services, or $29,000 if they choose to purchase and operate the vineyard-specific drone system themselves.”

Yamaha’s Brad Anderson told The Grapevine Magazine that at this time, Yamaha is only offering a spray service and not selling its units. “A vineyard owner or management company pays on a per-application (spray) basis,” he said. “Therefore, there is no upfront cost for the use of our units.”

Drone Expansion for the Future

With modern advances in technology, drones are no longer a far-fetched solution for common vineyard issues. However, it is not enough to simply collect drone data, and vineyards must fully understand the potential, risks, and applications of drones.

But ultimately, drones are part of a larger trend of data-driven agriculture and a movement towards growing more with automation than manual labor. They hold great promise to irrigate less, use fewer pesticides, reduce chemicals, produce more, and ultimately create better wine. After all, that’s what it is all about, and so frankly, the potential of drones has become too promising to ignore.