Drones are Finding Use in California’s Vineyards


Drones Body 1With the state suffering from a record-breaking drought, California’s agriculture sector has a number of challenges ahead of them in the coming years. Its vineyards are no exception, as the limited water supply means higher costs and lower yields. But there is some good news for grape farmers, and it’s in the form of technology that promises to significantly improve their operational efficiency.  

Drones – small, unmanned aerial vehicles that are usually operated with a handheld controller – have long been used in fields like photography. But they are now used in many different commercial applications, with agriculture being one of the most significant.  When properly utilized, these little aircraft help boost yields and reduce man hours.

A Look at the Possibilities

We’ve talked about American wines before, and how California is the beating heart of the U.S. wine market. Its shipments amounted to nearly 225 million cases in 2014 alone, with exports worth $1.5 billion.  Being the fourth largest wine producer in the world, any notable changes in its grape production will have an impact not just locally, but on the international market as well.

This is where the unmanned aerial vehicles come flying in. Drones allow owners to observe large vineyards cheaply and easily. An aerial view provides an easy way to detect irrigation problems, fungal infestations, and other issues. The multispectral images taken by the camera also provides a perspective beyond the naked eye.

Several local farmers have already started experimenting with drones, with considerable results. An impressive example is the case of Hahn Vineyards. They cooperated with PrecisionHawk and Verizon, monitoring the grapevines with agricultural drones and ground installed sensors.

With their system, they could quickly collect information such as crop density and soil moisture at any given time. The sensors could also measure factors like humidity, wind, and rainfall. This gathered data provides a deeper understanding of the vineyards, and tells farmers exactly what needs to be adjusted.  

Another Californian grower that has made use of drones is the DRNK Winery. Their drone, affectionately nicknamed “Spidey”, takes high resolution images of the vineyards all day. Thanks to this, they always have a clear idea of what’s going on with their crops.

The images help them analyse which areas are properly watered, something crucial especially with the current drought. This data also shows how ripe each section is; the result is much better sampling, and they can always pick grapes at the right week.

Truly Accessible Technology

One of the advantages of drones is that they are easy to operate. Agricultural drones often use software to determine their flight paths; no input is needed from the farmer from takeoff to landing. The software also calculates the most efficient route, so that it achieves the greatest possible coverage in the least amount of time.  

Cost is not much of an issue either, as good platforms retail from a few hundred to a thousand dollars. This is less expensive than scheduling a single manned surveillance flight, which farmers relied on in the past. As time goes on and more developers enter the market, aerial robotics is only going to become even more affordable.

Drones might just be another gadget trend, but this is unlikely; the data they provide is vital, and there are no strong alternatives right now. Compared to using satellite imagery, which is much less precise and blocked by clouds, drones are the overall more effective product. The only real question is if your operations are big enough to require it.

Finally Freed from Red Tape

If drone tech has been around for years, why wasn’t it adopted earlier by the wine industry? Unfortunately, its spread has been hindered by the many strict laws surrounding commercial use. Aerial robotics is a somewhat controversial issue; concerns about privacy and airspace rights have made it difficult for the Federal Aviation Administration to loosen the rules.  

Thankfully, things are changing, and the debut of the Section 333 Exemption is a promising step forward. It permits approved companies to fly drones commercially, handed out on a case by case basis. Anyone can petition, and as of March 11, the FAA has already granted 3,927 of these.

With the Section 333 Exemptions, drone development and adoption will likely accelerate in the coming years. Agricultural drones will gradually become more sophisticated, widespread, and user-friendly.

Toasting the Future of Flight

Drones Body 2California is unlikely to be the only place adopting drone technology. Depending on the results we see in the coming years, France and the rest of the old world will likely try experimenting with it as well. Increased precision and better control over grape growth can only help wine quality, after all.

Given the potential impact this will have on the entire wine industry, we look forward to seeing just how far drones go. What new features will be developed to aid farmers? Our cellars here at the Singapore Wine Vault may soon hold vintages grown with the help of these aircraft.