Innovative technologies to enable precision viticulture and enhance production are not futuristic notions, they are soon to be upon us, as the latest research in data-driven production spreads fast through agriculture and viticulture.  Vineyard finds out how these advances will aid efficiency and provide a competitive edge to vineyard businesses. 

The technology to collect the data to enable precision viticulture involves weather sensors, soil and moisture sensors, multispectral imaging and then the interpretation of this data, often with artificial intelligence (AI), specialist software, or the Internet of Things (IoT) – in order to present the vineyard manager with useful information for management decisions. The aim is to improve fruit yield and quality, reduce inputs and the impact on the environment as well as achieve operational efficiencies. 

Sensors in the vineyard are not necessarily new but the technology has evolved so they now can use AI and IoT which compute the data, and present it to the vineyard manager in meaningful form via various devices, such as phones, tablets and laptops. 

Ben Kantsler, Head Viticulturist at Nyetimber Vineyards, runs over 800 acres of vineyards across the counties of Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. “Precision viticulture is a term used to manage variability within the vineyard. With advances in technology this variability can now be measured in new ways, so we can capture the information we need and combine this with in-field benchmarking to keep us informed of the growing season and aid management decisions.”

Darryl Kemp, Vineyard Manager of Simpsons Wine Estate in Kent, uses precision viticulture, currently on a small scale but is evaluating whether further technology can be of use. “The more relevant data you can record and analyse the better. You can reduce inputs and improve processes – hopefully improving efficiencies and profitability and also grape quality and our environmental impact.”     

Current technology in the vineyard

“In respect to vineyard variability, historically, we have always managed this by understanding the localised geography of the site and soil sampling to understand the vigour potential of each field. We now combine this information and layer it with fortnightly nitrogen tissue testing, annual petiole sampling and normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) information for the season,” explained Ben.

“Other technologies we use include disease forecasting linked to weather station data and in-field temperature sensors via tiny tags, these allow us to understand localised weather conditions better. Personally, I also appreciate everyday accessible technologies which aid management such as WhatsApp, Dropbox and Google Earth,” said Ben. 

 At Simpsons Wine Estate, “the vines were planted using a GPS planter, so we have field maps of the location of every vine as well as soil maps using Agrii’s Soilquest – which forms the base of a precision viticultural system. Also, we have weather stations and additional satellite stations that measure air temperature, humidity, soil temperature and soil moisture – as well as a leaf moisture sensor – and this feeds back into an App to provide weather alerts such as frost, growing data like GDD, and disease modelling and predication. And of course, there are the trusty excel spreadsheets,” commented Darryl.

Already in widespread use in vineyards are the Sectormentor and ClimateVine apps. Sectormentor is essentially a data recording app and the vineyard manager can input data as they go through the vines which can be used, for example, counting inflorescences for yield estimates. “However, the accuracy does always depend on the human.  You input the data, and the app does the calculations.  Yield estimations can be as close to 3-5% with data collected nearer harvest.  It’s a useful vineyard diary and can record dates and growth stages. It has a map function and GPS, so is as accurate as the phone. The ClimateVine app is more about climate data and provides frost alerts as well as growing season heat summations,” explained Joel Jorgensen, viticulturist at Veraison. 

Farmable app

Embracing the new

“Technology is evolving so quickly so at Nyetimber we are constantly looking at alternatives to aid management. In terms of data, we want enough to assist management decisions – without overcomplicating the management process. I think we will get to a stage where more of our tractors have GPS systems fitted and these will be combined with in-field LIDAR (satellite) information to provide a more accurate description of vineyard variability at vine level. LIDAR information should then assist with yield estimates, leaf area to fruit ratios etc,” added Ben.

“We have just started using a growing management app called Farmable, explained Darryl. “It’s a smart phone-based tool recording everyday viticultural activities – for example you can create and record vineyard tasks, such as spraying. We can input our product list and equipment list into the database. It tracks the task via GPS and creates a log of the hours and products used – as well as the area covered. For me, the most useful data collected will be the time taken and the labour hours for each task – giving the ability to measure the cost of production for each parcel of vines, with minimal office time. I’m also keeping an eye on the emerging technology to predict yield quickly and consistently to allow for better harvest planning and production planning for the winery.”

The Bakus robot from VitiBot
Bakus is an electrically powered robot developed by VitiBot. It has 3D sensors that enable it to autonomously navigation through the vines and detect obstacles. It is being developed to mechanically weed as well as spray. 

Useful data

“Data only has value when being utilised,” commented Ben, “so we try and only collect the data we need. Grapevines produce an annual crop, so data collection becomes very important to achieve the best outcome for that season. Climatic data (rainfall and temperature), soil data {chemical properties, biological activity and Readily Available Water (RAW)}, vine data (bud fruitfulness and internode spacing), crop walking (for trap catches and nitrogen testing) during the growing season are recorded and assist daily management. Comparing this data with previous seasons also allows some understanding of how these variables interlink – which in turn hopefully aids management decisions.” 

“Our data collection currently enables us to measure cost of production, to track and reduce inputs, measure seasonal vine growth and allow for historical comparisons. In the future we plan to use technology and the data collected to provide yield predictions and disease alerts,” commented Darryl. 

The barriers

Many vineyard managers are poised to embrace new technologies, but there are barriers to uptake. “There will always be some barriers to adopting new technology – it may be administrative, cost related or even psychological! However, these barriers will always be specific to the individual and I find that cost/benefit analysis is a good tool. For our business the most common barrier is generally scalability and we manage this via small field trials initially and if positive, collaborate with teams and providers to build it into a management strategy,” explained Ben. 

One of the main barriers, In Darryl’s view, “is the lack of the integration between technologies, cost, and the fact that new technologies can become outdated quickly.”  He also adds that, “it is important not to collect data for data’s sake and to assess the cost and the time taken to collect and analyse the data to ensure there is improvement and return on value.”

What’s next

There are many technologies available already that collect data in the vineyard, including sensors, monitors and multispectral devices which can be handheld, tractor mounted or used with drones. These all aim to support precision viticulture, ultimately improving fruit quality, reducing costs and environmental impact as well as improving efficiency. They provide data for management decisions, but do they yet replace a human in the vineyard?  With potential labour shortages there is a demand for technology to provide yield forecasts, disease and nutritional status assessments, as well as to carry out weeding or spraying.  Robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are evolving so quickly, and the next step is for all the technology to be linked and for automation to reliably replace people in the vineyard – maybe one day the vineyard can be managed from a laptop.