Emerging technologies revolutionise vineyards

New and emerging technologies are allowing vineyard growers to increase efficiency, yield, fruit quality, or a combination of these, last month's International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton heard.

VineRobot: detecting nitrogen content in leaves
VineRobot: detecting nitrogen content in leaves

"There have been major advances in several technologies which we will see in our vineyards," Australian viticulture consultant and Curtin University lecturer Dr Tony Profitt said. "Labour costs are often the highest budget item, so it makes sense to think about automation."

Pruning "is the most important seasonal activity in the vineyard", he said, and the Klima Pruning System from New Zealand lifts wires clear of the canes before cutting blades remove the surplus canes, and then depositing the trimmings as a mulch. "In New Zealand it has brought cost savings of 30 per cent," he added.

An automated leaf thinner which uses blasts of compressed air has been developed by US-based Lakeview Vineyard Equipment, but "the force can blast parts of the leaves into the fruit, leaving them open to Botrytis infection determine.

Mechanical harvesters meanwhile are common in New Zealand and the USA but not so far in the UK. These have the advantage of being able to create yield maps of the vineyard, through a combination of weighing platform and GPS. "I have yet to see a vineyard that has no variation," he said. "Variations in canopy growth and size can be determined from the air using light aircraft, or from the ground using proximal sensors - there is such a service here in the UK." At the same time, infrared thermography can use leaf temperature to determine which areas are under water or disease stress, while areas of cooler soil can indicate irrigation leaks.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones meanwhile "can be very useful in capturing imagery" as they can provide very high resolution of 1cm per pixel, and "are good for the UK given your high levels of cloud cover", Proffitt said. These are also being used in Australia to disperse predatory insects, he added, while there are even commercially available UAVs that imitate birds of prey in order to deter fruit-eating birds.

Soil characteristics of greenfield and established sites can be determined by a soil sensor matrix, he said. "This lets you identify shallow soils or areas of poor moisture retention, which you can put right by mulching - it's nothing very technical." This forms the basis of variable rate application of fertilisers and other inputs, in systems already commercially available, he added, and can also provide vineyard managers with improved yield forecasting and inform a strategy of selective harvesting, he added.

Dr Andrew Landers of Cornell University explained that growers frequently get poor deposition of sprayed products, particularly early in the season. "We rarely change the airflow to match the canopy but it's stupid not to, economically and environmentally," he said.

The system he and a colleague have developed uses an array of ultrasonic sensors to characterise the canopy density, integrated with the patented Cornell Louvre system to control air and liquid flow on the sprayer. Trial of the technique at Cornell's Geneva, NY campus have shown a reduction in spray use of up to 40 per cent in late spring when the canopy is still developing, with the difference all but gone by July.

"We need new diagnostic tools - if you can't measure it, you can't improve it," said Dr Javier Tardaguila of La Rioja University in Spain who coordinates the VineRobot project.

Moving along rows at 1.5-5 km/h, the robot's two sensors detecting nitrogen content of leaves and anthocyanin in red grapes, information which is then turned into a vineyard map accessible via computer or smartphone to support decision making.

With partners from four EU countries, "it's very ambitious", he said. "We try to find a balance between complexity, reliability, usability and cost-effectiveness. We want to commercialise this and are open to proposals."

One of the VineRobot partners, French-based developer Force-A, also supplies a portable field fluorometer, the Multiplex, which measures chlorophyll in leaves and polyphenols in fruits instantly and non-destructively, in order to "validate scientific hypotheses or to optimize the crop practices", it says.

Tardaguila's La Rioja colleague Dr Maria Diago then explained how a new smartphone app is able to count the number of flowers per inflorescence, so indicating likely fruit set and hence yield.

Using the phone's own camera, the VitisFlower app is available free for Android phones, with an iPhone version in development. Current goals including removing the need for a dark card to be placed behind the target, she added. "The next stage is to determine the final number of berries after set, giving you a good estimation of yield."

As well as monitoring key fruit compounds, emerging technology is able to tweak these in a surprising way. Applying an "instantaneous heat shock" to grapes has "interesting effects", AgroThermal Systems chief executive Marty Fischer explained. A tractor-pulled machine delivers a blast of hot air, raising the canopy temperature by 8-12 deg C for just 20-30 seconds, but sufficient to cause the fruit to produce higher levels of antioxidants and phenols.

Applied earlier in the season, "you also get excellent fruit set at the flowering stage as it dries out the flower bunch", he said. Trials have shown a 23 per cent increase in berries per bunch, and a 16 per cent increase in yield weight, "so you're getting a better skin to grape ratio, giving you better wine".

It can also dry off the canopy, reducing incidence of disease, and raise Brix levels "from 21 to 24 within 36 hours", he said, citing the Adelsheim Vineyard of Oregon as producing "consistently better wine" since it began applying the technique in 2012.

The machine is being manufactured commercially by German vineyard equipment specialist Clemens. Meanwhile, a forthcoming study by North Dakota State University researchers will explain this abiotic stress reaction in the fruit, Fischer added.

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