Diseases are costing growers up to US$100,000/ha in affected vineyards. Drone technology may offer a way of slashing some of these losses by detecting problems much earlier.
Early detection is vital because for some diseases such as grapevine leaf roll, there are no treatment options, so infected vines need to be removed before other plants are affected. Sometimes, whole vineyards have to be replanted if this disease is present in more than 25% of the vines, stresses Richard Van der Put, co-founder and CEO of Canadian-based company SkySquirrel Technologies.
Another important disease is Flavescence dorée, which is even more invasive than leaf roll disease and in France, there is a mandatory programme in place to control it.
To help vineyard owners, SkySquirrel has spent the past 5 years developing diagnostics using drone-based sensors and Nasa technology. “Our software is based on extensive databases of spectral signatures from plants with and without disease symptoms to detect specific infections,” explains Mr Van der Put.
Through an exclusive partnership with VineView Scientific Aerial Imaging, a California-based remote sensing service provider, the company has access to Nasa software and was able to develop the drone (called Aqweo) with a tailor-made camera. “VineView uses small planes in California, equipped with big cameras that take hyperspectral images,” he says.
Water stress detection
One of the new capabilities the company is working on is water stress detection using multispectral images to measure how much water is present in the leaves.
This allows water stress to be measured and controlled effectively to ensure grape quality and production levels, which is important as some high-quality grapes are used for high-end wines, says Mr Van der Put.
“Water stress can throw a spanner in the works when selecting the high-quality grapes.”
Advanced hyperspectral imaging can detect specific plant metrics, such as disease and water stress. “However, these cameras cannot be used on drones, as they are too big. This is why we have developed a smaller – multispectral – version, suitable to mount on drones,” adds Mr Van der Put.
The drone will fly a preprogrammed route over the fields, automatically recording multispectral images. The data is uploaded to the cloud and analysed by SkySquirrel, using proprietary algorithms. “We can analyse for red blotch, leaf roll disease, Flavescence dorée and Esca,” says Mr Van der Put. The Flavescence dorée option was only launched earlier this year.
It is the only company that offers vineyard disease detection by using camera-equipped drones.
Looking to the future, Mr Van der Put believes SkySquirrel drones will be equipped with hyperspectral cameras, which are too big at present to fit on drones. “This will mean that the drones can fly over a much larger area (covering multiple different vineyards).”
Emmy Koeleman spoke to Richard Van der Put at the annual Alltech conference in Kentucky in May 2017. SkySquirrel is one of the 10 selected companies in the Pearse Lyons Accelerator programme, an initiative supporting agri-tech start-ups with proven technology that is ready for market.