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Attack of the Wine Drones

Launching the 3DR Iris drone from amongst the vines
© 3D Robotics | Launching the 3DR Iris drone from amongst the vines
W. Blake Gray reports that the use of drones "creeps out governments."

Drones can already spy on public parks, and rain death from above. Now, they can help wine growers get their grapes uniformly ripe.

DRNK Wines in western Sonoma County is using drones to map sections of its pinot noir vineyard that ripen earlier than others.

The idea is that if the drone flies the exact same route over the vineyard multiple times – with a camera on board, of course – farmers can not only see which clusters have problems with mildew or pests; they can also easily register which individual vines have more green, vigorous vegetation.

It's possible to do this with any remote-controlled aircraft. But a drone, flying a pre-programmed route, has several advantages, says DRNK winemaker Ryan Kunde.

"You have more consistent images to compare to one another," reports Kunde, who split off from his famous winegrowing family to co-found DRNK. "If you use a remote-controlled plane, you might have different altitudes. There's also less possibility of crashing [with a drone]."

Drone technology is so popular with hobbyists that former Wired magazine editor in chief Chris Anderson left the print world to pursue it. His company, 3D Robotics, sells the drone that DRNK uses.

Sue Rosenstock, 3D Robotics spokesperson, says one-third of the company's customers come from agriculture. Its 3DR Iris drone is just $730, not counting the camera, putting the cost within reach of many vineyard owners.

The drones are tiny: less than two feet wide, weighing less than three pounds. Rosenstock said Australian farmers are using them because of the size of their ranches, though she couldn't name any winegrowers in particular.

"Before, farmers would have to walk the land," Rosenstock says. "With infrared mapping and thermal mapping, they can see a lot more. Instead of spraying an entire area, farmers can use thermal photography to determine which crops are in need of special treatment."

The video below, shot by 3D Robotics, shows the views obtained by a drone flying over DRNK's vineyards. 

It has to be said, though, that drones creep out governments. In the U.S., people are allowed to fly small drones for recreational purposes no higher than 400 feet above ground, and not within two miles of an airstrip.

Technically, a business flying a drone should get a special license from the FAA. "If I'm flying above my own property for my own use, it shouldn't be regulated," Kunde says, and he can always claim its use is recreational. 

In Australia, airspace regulations are looser and animal rights activists are even using a drone to spy on factory farms, checking out whether such claims as "free range" are accurate. Imagine if they cared about biodynamic wine; they could keep an eye on the burial of cow horns.

Kunde believes that drones are part of the future of winemaking because of both their precision and cost-efficiency. He also argues that they're environmentally friendly; drones can fly over remote, hilly areas that previously had to be visited by tractor.

"[UC Davis professor] Roger Boulton told me there are only a couple of things that consistently improve wine quality year after year," Kunde reports. The first is "precision viticultural practices."

By having such sophisticated aerial imaging, he says, winemakers are introduced to a whole ranger of possibilities. For example, they can "cultivate their vineyard differently to alter the growth habits of a subset of vines, to reduce variability, or to harvest subsets of the vineyard separately and blend later," explains Kunde. Or they can use to information "to reduce inputs, or change selective cover cropping, or canopy management."

Secondly, Kunde notes that by having more precise viticulture, smaller-parcel fermentations can take place, giving a more diverse array of flavors and textures to choose from for the final blend.

To quote "Star Trek," it could be that "resistance is futile."

L-R: Drones can provide a wealth of information to winemakers; Ryan Kunde examines grapes from an area identified by the drone as ripening early
© 3D Robotics | L-R: Drones can provide a wealth of information to winemakers; Ryan Kunde examines grapes from an area identified by the drone as ripening early

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