Robots, Dassies and Drones in the Vineyard

There are vineyards in the Cape which don’t just see the tread of the human foot, shoe of the horse or tyre of the tractor, some see the caterpillar pattern of a robot, too.

Globally, research in Precision Viticulture is moving fast (in scientific terms). Dr Carlos Poblete-Echeverria is building a team to focus on Precision Viticulture at the Department of Viticulture and Oenology (Stellenbosch University) and also he is part of the group that is developing the prototype vineyard robot “the Dassie”.

Satellites have been used in Precision Viticulture for a while now, and many farmers make use of their ability to reflect soil issues, ripening patterns and canopy development. They produce vegetative indexes of 90 by 90 metres areas, like the Landsat 8, focussing down to 30 sq. metres in colour. That typically comprises around 12 rows of vines or around 240 vines.

Surprisingly, perhaps, obtaining one satellite image of your vines, in a 16-day cycle, can be free so it is possible to get a picture of the vineyard over time, and for larger producers this is very useful.

Drones now have a role alongside satellite technology. They work closer – much closer, to the plants – and can focus down to less than 10 cm and can also be used more frequently. They do require accurate GPS co-ordinates and can produce valuable information for each vine. Dr Poblete says that users must remember that drones can give lots of data and that analysing and understanding so much information is critical, a skill many farmers don’t have – as well as the time required to do the analysis. One of the areas where drone technologies are progress is in identifying Leaf Roll disease patterns by analysing disease symptoms. Whilst viral attack predictions cannot yet be achieved, identifying areas at risk or following disease development will surely help isolate the infected plants.

New developments are in vineyard robots, with Naïo Technologies in France having Ted, a robot that weeds and hoes the soil, in California (with a $1million grant from government), the RAPID robot senses weather conditions and can physically turn taps, irrigating single rows, on and off. In Monterey a robot does the topping, tipping and thinning of the vines, whilst also in France, Wall-Ye uses arms, guided by six cameras to prune vines.

Part of Dr Poblete’s research now is on “the Dassie”, a vineyard prototype robot that was jointly developed through a partnership between the CSIR and Stellenbosch University. Dassie is a remote-controlled prototype robot able to drive through rows of vines, to take readings in real time. Presently, tests are being done on sensor applications and how such information can be applied by the farmer in a practical way. Dassie is equipped with sensors that can create pictures of each vine as it passes, with vast information being compiled and fed to a computer programme to evaluate aspects such as canopy growth and temperature and humidity around leaves or bunches

Dr Poblete uses water stress as an example. Dassie can identify where the best place to put soil moisture probes are and can show patterns of canopy development. This could provide  information to adjust water supplies so that very small pockets can be isolated, and irrigation adjusted even more precisely than at present – a possible saving in inputs resources/costs becoming more and more essential.

In time, Dr Poblete sees the possibility of the University providing services with these technologies to farmers and students involved in analysing data, offering practical advice and furthering research. Already, Dr Albert Strever at Stellenbosch University is tasked to look for innovative applications, maybe commercially, to work with farmers and producers.

Perhaps the future will see each vineyard or even vine with its own data monitor, constantly feeding information about its development and predicting yield, water and nutrient requirements, dates for bud burst, veraison and ripening, bunch weight, disease onset, viral attack, even age span. Monitors already exist which are hung around the vine and monitor temperature and humidity under the canopy, so it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination.

Dassie1 (photo supplied by CSIR)

Dassie and drone with Dr Poblete

Dr Carlos Poblete

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