Swiss vineyards take drones to new level
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Vineyards have been using drones regularly for aerial photography for some years, mainly in the US and Australia, but a Swiss pilot project is taking drones to new heights – not literally, but in terms of their technological prowess.
This week a surprising Swiss trio – a chateau winery that boasts a 1,000-year-old terroir, a federal viticulture station and a successful polytechnic university startup – unveiled a year-old vineyard drone pilot project’s results.
The project marries photos of the vines, accurate to 3cm, with a wealth of data, giving the winery new information on 19 “mini-parcels” as a result.
The idea is not new but the speed at which it’s become a sophisticated working reality is. In a wine market such as Switzerland where significant differences can occur over tiny areas in a small vineyard, with serious financial consequences, “precision viticulture” has great appeal.
(story continues below) slide show: raw images, not at their highest resolution, taken by the drone Tuesday 30 September at the chateau; in the full chateau image you can see me in a white jacket, filming the drone!
Swiss wineries are increasingly positioning themselves as makers of top-quality products to be able to survive a shrinking market, as home and foreign wine consumption falls.
Every grape counts.
Millennial terroir goes ultra-contemporary
Drones have been described as just another viticultural management tool for wineries, mainly a cheaper form of aerial photography, to be used with classic tools such as soil samples.
The BBC covered the budding new field of precision viticulture, or PV, in November 2012, noting that it might eventually do away with the need for soil profiles, where specialists create a metre-wide and metre-deep hole to analyze the soil.
The work done in the Vaud vineyard in Switzerland over the past year was in its infancy when the BBC asked a British specialist to explain PV, an indication of the speed at which the technology is developing.
Polytechnic university EPFL startup SenseFly in Lausanne became one of the earliest companies to finetune the technology. Its work with Château de Châtagneréaz in Mont-sur-Rolle brought together a dynamic young cutting-edge tech company, researchers from a highly respected university in the field of wine, Changins, and a fine wine terroir that has been looking down over Lake Geneva for 1,000 years.
The vines edge what were once Roman roads.
First drone vintage en route
Pierre-Olivier Dion-Labrie is the head vigneron, with responsibility for viticulture at the chateau, which has belonged to Rolle-based wine firm Schenk since 1947. He says that the information he’s obtained from the project will be very helpful when he begins to harvest his first “drone vintage” next week.
Tuesday a small sample of the results was shown to a group of journalists: it was very clear that in one small patch drainage is an issue, and the reasons behind the problem were clarified.
A handful of vines away, another small patch has vines that are less vigorous than others, and the drone data made it clear that the vine stress was linked to top grafting, a process that modifies the grape variety of an established and productive vine. It short-circuits the process of uprooting and replanting in order to change the grape variety in place.
Dion-Labrie says the information will force the winery to rethink how it is working this corner of the vineyard.
More generally, there’s an ecological advantage: results give such precise information that it will be easier in future to see where to intervene and where to leave the vines alone, rather than treating an entire vine parcel.
Dramatic geography and geography: major impact on Swiss terroir
Take one look at the geography of Switzerland and it is clear why Swiss vineyards are remarkably varied in terms of soil, relief and sun exposition.
The chateau didn’t have drones in mind when it approached Changins, the federal agricultural centre and Dion-Labrie’s alma mater.
It offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes in viticulture and viniculture; the majority of Swiss wine producers study here. Changins also provides consulting services to wineries.
Dion-Labrie says the domaine, which produces an award-winning 1er Grand Cru Chasselas, believed it could benefit from more information about some areas in the vineyard, despite an excellent 2013 vintage.
Changins proposed working with its research department and using drones to take advantage of new technical options developed by SenseFly. The company has 70 employees, in its sixth year, and 80 drones working for clients in more than 50 countries.
Swiss precision holds promise for Swiss wines
The project kicked off in February 2014 and involved scores of students regularly taking samples and measuring, to compare their findings with data recorded by the drone as it flew over the chateau’s 13.5-hectare vineyard, most of which surrounds the chateau.
They worked with SenseFly to develop the data needs related mainly to water use, weeds, and growth rates and to process the data.
The ultralight (750 gr) fixed-wing drone took photos at varying frequencies, including infrared, and from oblique angles, requiring sophisticated automated flying programming.
The company uses Ebee flight planning software for the self-flying drone and Postflight Terra software for the 3-D image processing.
Changins won’t say for now how much the project cost, noting only that any figures wouldn’t be representative, but the three partners agree that the chateau’s experience will help Changins develop programmes that can be used by other wineries.
Swiss precision added to precision viticulture appears to have a promising future.