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Drones Are Saving the California Wine Industry

February 9, 2016

Amidst one of the worst droughts in California history, winemakers are getting creative in the way they grow water intensive crops in order to maintain production, profit and drinking demand

How Winemakers Can Use Drones

Instead of fearing California’s water crisis, winemaker Hahn Vineyards has decided to work around the drought and outsmart the El Niño winter rains by using drones. The use of drones in agriculture is going to become one the largest conversations of this year as the effects of climate change are yielding multiple challenges in the production of crops everywhere. The California winery is working with PrecisionHawk and Verizon to monitor its vineyards using data gathered by drones.

How Drones Measure Grapevine Growth

Five-pound unmanned ag-drones fly above the grapevines, collecting information about the crops’ canopy growth. Drops then transmit multispectral images to determine the crops’ overall density from sensors installed on the ground by Verizon. These Intel sensors measure temperature and humidity, which communicate through a transceiver. Based on that data, soil moisture monitors can measure water volume at different soil depths.

That information helps flow meters gauge the amount of water to apply. Sensors in the field are also connected to a gateway housed in a weather station to measure wind speed/direction, humidity, rainfall and photosynthetic radiation from the sun’s rays. Using specialized software, farmers can then synthesize the crop data and receive recommendations on how to adjust their practices to improve the grape harvest. “All of that data goes into the platform, which runs it against our analytics engine, which looks for patterns and anomalies to make recommendations,” says Mark Bartolomeo, who leads Verizon’s IoT Connected Solutions division. “The idea is, if you’re the farmer, it shows exactly what you should do,” he adds.

drone sensor wine

In November, Hahn volunteered a patch of its vineyard to test the monitoring concept. Verizon worked in tandem with Hahn to install its Internet of Things (IoT) AgTech sensors to increase the precision and better understand the irrigation needs of each block of grapevines. “If you look at crop farming over thousands of years, people have tried to understand what makes the best grapes,” says Ashok Srivastava, Chief Data Scientist at Verizon. “The IoT platform we’re building allows us to understand data and information at multiple scales.”

Creating Crop Production Efficiency

Overall, Verizon thinks its solution will increase yield by 10 percent and decrease spraying and water by 30 percent. For farmers, that is a considerable amount of revenue when these two factors are combined. “We are bush to barrel. We’re getting a clearer picture of what’s going on at the vineyard,” says Andy Mitchell, Hahn’s director of viticulture. “As we progress, we will be able to really fine tune what we’re looking for.” Being able to conserve water and add precision to resources like energy, prevent crop disease and lower operating costs ultimately results in increased and predictable crop yields. If other vineyards can leverage this method, then it’s one more positive step in developing scalable, more sustainable farming practices. Wine is an expensive crop to grow, but it can also be one of the most profitable.

Verizon Offers Open API for Agricultural Developers

A successful IoT ag-system such as the one piloted above could be a game changer in maintaining food in today’s world. With the launch of the platform, Verizon has also placed an open call to developers, opening up its API for development and use, as one barrier to innovation is that developers of new IoT solutions have to go through multiple channels and cumbersome processes to access the tools they need to create and launch applications.

Verizon hopes to radically simplifying that process with ThingSpace, a new self-service web interface. ThingSpace allows users to manage their IoT environments and related data, end-to-end, from device to network to application. Developers can also build IoT solutions using Verizon’s extensive capabilities and innovation resources. As of today, all developers can code and test on the ThingSpace platform.

All Farmers Should Benefit from Data –– But How?

I ultimately hope that platforms such as ThingSpace will help small farmers, as well as large ones. Bigger businesses can afford drones and data modeling. Their increased production directly ties to the government subsidies they often receive. Smaller businesses may not have the initial $12,000 investment to get started at a basic level. IoT use in agriculture should benefit all farmers. There are a few use cases where small farmers get as much support, though it is proven that their methods are often less taxing on the environment, though don’t necessarily fit modernization trends. No matter the size of a farm, a vineyard or production outlet, the use of smart technology on an even playing field will help us feed the world and lessen the harmful effects on our natural resources.

Are we facing an outcome found in the movie Interstellar? No, but we could if their isn’t a level system that includes big and small.

This article originally appeared on my technology column on PSFK, follow my in-depth reports on agriculture, technology, food and automation there.