Nature’s signs are ever present in the Kunde Family Vineyard as Sonoma County’s harvest approaches with copious amounts of ripening grapes, yellowing leaves, and hungry birds. But the morning air whispers a subtle mechanical sound as a 3D Robotics‘ autonomous multicoper lands among the vines.
Drone news is often military related, but drones can be used for everything from agriculture to delivering pizza. 2014 Precision Aerial Ag Show drew 1,000 midwest farmers. With concerns about privacy the FAA has postponed final discussions on drone regulations until 2015. Current FAA restrictions allow farmers to operate an unmanned aircraft over their own property for personal use under 400 feet and outside 3 miles of an airport. Japan is extensively using drones in agriculture. 3D Robotics wants farmers to use drones the way they would any piece of farming equipment and is creating products to meet those agricultural needs.
Ryan Kunde, 5th generation viticulturist and winemaker from DRNK Wines, is surveying the grapes to be harvested in the Kunde Family Vineyards near the old winery ruins in the Sonoma Valley AVA. Kunde Family Vineyards is a remarkably diverse 1,850 acre farm with less than 40% of its land devoted to vineyards and topography that varies from 1400 foot mountain tops, to rolling hills, to a valley floor. The vineyard acreage is home to around 20 varietals grown in a volcanic band of “Red Hill” soil. Ryan is very familiar with this large vineyard, he grew up here among these sustainably-grown vines talking easily about the the land, the lakes and grapes in a knowledgeable but unpretentious manner. But today he wants a bird’s eye view of these vineyards to help him assess areas of vigor and stress, because he needs to determine harvest timing and row locations.
This time of the year, growers and winemakers alike are walking the vineyards sampling the fruit and making their most important decision of the year – when to harvest. But is that really the only question? More and more I am hearing that separating the grapes from different areas of the vineyard so that more complex and interesting wines can be blended at bottling is almost as important as harvest timing. How do you evalutate all of the important or possibly important grape variations within a large vineyard like Kunde Family Vineyards? For Ryan the answer is viticultural drones. Drone photographic images can be accumulated long-term to assess vineyard patterns and perform maintenance. Additionally, they can be used for on-demand aerial images as he is doing today.
Images are created from autonomous, fixed-wing planes and multicopters with a point-and-shoot camera mounted inside. 3D Robotoics software then stitched the images together to generate the 3D model of the vineyard. Color variations in the 3D photographic model of vineyard help select sampling areas for possible seaparation during harvest. Then it was back to the manual process and out into the vineyard to pick grapes to test for harvest readiness, using additional tools of the harvest (refractometer).
Drones are obviously not a replacement for a knowledgeable vineyard manager or winemaker, but another farming tool. Drones can be a cost-effective solution in difficult terrains, newly acquired vineyards, or large properties to assess areas for manual evaluation or maintenance. This evaluation can include watering or fertilizations requirements, pest control, general vineyard vigor, or harvest readiness. Ryan can send vineyard workers with guided GPS to specific areas of the vineyard to work and make informed decision about grapes to be separated during harvest so that he has the ability to make better decisions and better wine once the grapes are back in the winery.
Imagery is not uncommon to agriculture, but hiring planes or using satellite technology is more expensive and subject to weather and timing. Planes often need to be hired weeks in advance and satellite images are difficult when clouds interfere.
Drones technology is moving to meet this agricultural need with two trends drivening drone expansion (and reducing pricing) one is open source technology and second is the development of the Maker Movement for do-it-yourself (DIY) techies. Ryan’s interest in technology began with a childhood interest in radio-controlled cars. Today, he owns automous fixed-wing planes and is beta-testing multicopters both models equiped with GPS location systems and point-and-shoot camera technology (Go-Pro).
The most important factor in any harvest is still the man or woman guiding the process, our wonderfully talented growers and winemakers, but using every available tool to make the best decision can give you an edge. Ryan is producing some incredible wines with a complexity that I love. So perhaps it isn’t just another tractor, but a new innovative tool to allow a talented winemaker to improve his winemaking starting in the vineyard!
3D Robotics was started in 2009 by Chris Anderson, former Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine, and Jostrdi Muñoz. At 20, Muñoz hacked a Nintendo Wii controller, wrote his own code, and equipped a remote helicopter with microcomputer boards to build the first-ever autopiloted drone. He recorded the flight with a camera and uploaded the video to a new website called DIYdrones.com, which was created by Chris Anderson. After Anderson saw the video, he sent the young inventor $500 so Muñoz could continue his work. Without ever meeting in person the duo started VC-backed 3D Robotics 2009. 3D Robotics is vertically integrated and manufactures its own hardware and software. While vertical integration increases up front development costs, it offers greater control for the company to market its products to specific industries, such as agriculture.
DRNK Wines is a Dougherty-Kunde family partnership with Dale Dougherty, Ryan Kunde, Nancy C. Dougherty and Katie Kunde. DRNK uses the latest winemaking techniques to create elegantly crafted and balanced wines, each expressing a focused sense of place. The inaugural release of DRNK’s Cavers Cuvee Pinot Noir received a 97 at the North Coast Wine Challenge. Ryan says, “Winemaking begins in the vineyard, and we begin evaluating our fruit from the time of inception to harvest from all perspectives, from under root to over the canopy. An intimate relationship with the fruit continues through crush as each lot is carefully hand harvested and sorted in the vineyard and again at the winery before crushing. All fermentations are carried out in small batches and punched down by hand. The wines are then transferred to barrel in our underground cellar, an ideal winemaking environment. The utmost care and consideration is given to each barrel individually before final blends are made.” Tours & Tasting by appointment only. Taste@drnkwines.com or call 707.889.1000
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