24 February 2023, New Zealand: As wine grapes hit a critical stage in the Southern hemisphere, drones are changing vineyard management to make it safer, easier, and more efficient. XAG P100 Agricultural Drone, with a large payload for spraying, flew over the steep hills and into the vineyards of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. In face of climate change, it has helped wine growers control fungal diseases with less water and reduce manual labor.
Oceania is an important grape-growing region for producing quality wines, where New Zealand is known for its outstanding wine grape varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. In 2022, New Zealand exported $1.9 billion of wine, representing 3.6% of its annual export revenue. The wine industry has become one of the country’s top export earners.
Powdery mildew, a typical type of fungal disease spread by spores, is the key challenge of grape cultivation. It can attack both vines and grapes, decreasing yields and affecting the aroma of wines. Due to the changing weather, the fungal spores are running more rampant under excessive rainfalls, which has put more disease pressure on farmers.
Fungicides should be sprayed regularly to prevent and control powdery mildew. Warren Gibson, the manager of Bilancia Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay, had trouble with how to spray safely and efficiently, and now drones from XAG become his new solution.
Dating back to the 1850s, Hawke’s Bay is the oldest and second-largest wine-producing region in New Zealand. It is home to over 200 vineyards covering 4,600 hectares. As one of its boutique vineyards, Bilancia was located in the steep hillside block, where Gibson and his colleagues used to spray with a 4-wheel motorbike.
“On such sloped terrain, the previous way the job was done was getting too dangerous for us. And we would easily get covered in chemicals, risking our health,” Gibson said. Efficiency is another problem that the 2-hectares vineyard took about 3 hours to cover with motorbike spray.
To find a safe, sustainable approach, Gibson turned to Airborne Solutions, XAG’s local partner in New Zealand, to try spraying with drones. The solution for the hilly terrain is to first create a 3D topographic map with XAG M500 Remote Sensing Drone, then use XAG P100 Agricultural Drone to spray precisely according to the terrain. With a flight speed of 2.3m/s, XAG P100 can spray the 2-hectare vineyard within an hour.
This drone with an upgraded capacity can bring better coverage on crops. Scott Horgan is the drone pilot on mission, who is impressed by the rotary nozzles and adjustable droplet size of the XAG P100. He was able to select 70 microns to achieve the best coverage possible and to stop powdery mildew.
“The P100 has a 40kg payload, so it is heavy enough to generate a strong downdraft when flown slowly and penetrate the vines. With grape spraying, you need to cover every single piece of the plants, or else the vine will get diseases,” Horgan explained. Also, drone operation only consumed 1/5 the amount of water used in the past.
What attracted Gibson most is that the introduction of drones can save vineyard workers from any danger. After the pilot set parameters on the smartphone, the XAG P100 can operate fully autonomously, while the wine growers watch it spray from safety of the flat ground. Gibson and his colleagues no longer have to wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) or drive the motorbikes up steep hillsides to spray.
The application of autonomous drones has huge potential to scale up in viticulture. In most places, vineyards still rely on tractor sprayers and overseas workers to manage the grapes, but changes must be made as labor shortages can stress out farmers.
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