Flying 'drones', GoPro cameras and GPS systems, along with the expertise of academics from the University of Aberdeen, are being used to help optimise the growth of wine grapes - and could also be used to aid in the growth of other fruit and vegetables.
Precision Viticulture (the science, production and growing of grapes) has taken off in a big way over the last five years thanks to advances in technology.
By using high quality imagery and video captured by drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), vineyard managers are able to get a far quicker overview of the health of a crop, and apply growing aids (pesticides, irrigation, etc) locally to the areas that really need it.
“The technology has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years, and it’s now at a stage where with only around £1,000 worth of equipment, you can start to collect information on the health of a vineyard,” says Dr David Green, a Geographer and Geographic Information System (GIS) expert at the University of Aberdeen.
“It’s all about looking for variability in soils and crops in a field, and monitoring how stable they are and then acting on that information. If you have a lack of soil moisture, you would use irrigation in that area, and you would apply fertiliser to an area not growing as well as others. Previously pesticides, fungicides and irrigation would be applied to the whole field, when perhaps only a small area actually required it.
“As well as saving money, a precision approach is far better for the environment, as there will be less chemicals going into the crop, and ultimately into the wine.”
With climate change taking its toll on traditional wine growing regions, it is predicted that the climate of south-east England could become even better for growing grapes to make sparkling wine.
Whilst Scotland’s climate is unlikely to become warm and dry enough in the summer months to develop vineyards, Dr Green says the research from Precision Viticulture could be applied to other sectors, such as soft fruit growing, which is big business in Tayside.
“There must be some aspect of where it is grown that affects the fruit. In Tayside they modify the climate by using polythene tunnels, but the soils and the location must be important, so I am sure this technology could benefit this industry as well.”
As the technology improves, it is likely that more and more of the monitoring process will be automated.
“At the moment, the UAVs return videos and images which can be quickly studied and acted upon but in the future it’s likely that the gathered information will be processed automatically, with different algorithms used to extract and display specific information.
“Software that calculates a Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) map gives you a simple key to crop condition. Other sensor technology is also being used to analyse soil properties – which is gathered by dragging a device through the ground behind a quad bike.
“We currently have a PhD student looking at the possibility of monitoring soil with a multispectral or hyperspectral camera system mounted on a UAV (Unmanned Airborne Vehicle) to try to derive soil properties. Once calibrated, this approach will hopefully generate the same information as a traditional ground-based soil survey but without the need for laboratory analysis.
“Overall, Precision Viticulture allows us to better understand the vineyard environment and will also help us to plant the right grape variety or crop in the optimum location. This will be increasingly important in light of the impacts of climate change and the need to adapt in some areas. But Precision Viticulture will also help us to grow crops better with less cost and less environmental impact.”