Drones in Viticulture

by Anne Alessandri - 05 Apr 2016

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are causing quite a stir in South Africa and abroad. Essentially, a drone is a flying robot that is remotely controlled or can fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems working in conjunction with GPS (http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/drone). While UAVs are more often associated with the military, it has potential uses in other areas such as search and rescue, surveillance, traffic monitoring, weather monitoring, firefighting and agriculture, amongst other things. This is what has got Dr Albert Strever from the Department of Viticulture and Oenology, Stellenbosch University excited.

‘The potential drones have in Viticulture as remote sensing tools are enormous. They are capable of acquiring high resolution optical data which can aid precision viticulture greatly. Traditional modes of data collection (satellites and manned aircrafts) have limitations, such as low resolution imagery, cost implications, lack of flexibility and restricted areas (i.e. mountainous areas). The advantages of drones are for instance lower operating costs, fast acquisition of high resolution imagery, flexibility (data can be collected ‘on demand’) and practicality (especially for smaller vineyards). Because drones can fly so much lower, the resolution can be as detailed as 1cm/pixel’ (Scaioni et al., 2009; Hunt et al., 2010).

Dr Strever also points out the importance of the drone in viticulture research, ‘Traditionally, one or two aerial photographs are taken per season per vineyard – this is not sufficient to detect the subtle but important changes in a vineyard. The drone will allow for more flexibility, more regular images and better resolution of these images. New imaging technology (i.e. hyperspectral/thermal) will be able to be tested and researched in real time. The versatility of the UAV system will enhance viticultural research immeasurably.’

Restrictions and limitations

There is world-wide controversy surrounding the use of UAV’s. In South Africa, rumours were spread saying the use of drones was illegal and would be banned. The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) issued a statement recognising that there is an urgent need and demand for UAV commercial use. Currently, SACAA is in the process of drafting legislation that will allow the integration of the UAV’s into the South African airspace. The use of drones will be legalised, but strictly regulated. Operation for commercial purposes will be restricted to companies registered to do so, and operators will need to be licensed and trained. Once the legislation is implemented, the more wide spread use of drones may well find its niche in the viticultural sector, from spraying pesticides, scattering seeds for cover crops, mapping vineyards for irrigation scheduling and so much more! Bring on the drone!

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