The Vineyard of the Future
The holy Grail for winemakers is fast, accurate information, from how to improve a vineyard’s yield to tweaking the alcohol content of the grapes. For five years, academic institutions in Australia, Chile, Spain and Italy have collaborated on The Vineyard of the Future initiative, with China and South Africa joining more recently, collecting data on variables that winemakers are finding ever more challenging in the face of climate change. Sensors in soil, on plants, in the atmosphere and even on drones are gathering data, which is married with other big-data sets, such as historical weather records. The Vineyard of the Future team is using it all to develop grower-friendly tools to tackle critical viticulture issues, including early detection of pests and disease, water and nutrient stress for irrigation and fertiliser management and smoke contamination from bushfires.
One tool that’s already at work from The Vineyard of the Future can relieve growers of the arduous task of manual point quadrat analysis. Essentially, it’s poking a rod into a grapevine to count the number of leaves, grape clusters and branches it hits then tabling the numbers and using that raw information to assess things such as irrigation scheduling. “It’s really timeintensive,” says international coordinator Dr Sigfredo Fuentes and it’s not that accurate.
Fuentes and his team at The University of Melbourne have collaborated with The University of Adelaide to develop VitiCanopy, an app that analyses photos of the vines to perform the same task. The grower walks through the vineyard with their phone on a selfie stick, snapping photos under the vines. The app, which uses the device’s GPS capabilities, instantly analyses the images for the same key indicators as manual checking. Wine Australia funded the development of the free app, which, since its release in 2015, has been downloaded more than 5000 times. “Most of the downloads are from America and Japan,” says Fuentes. “You can use it for any crop, if you change some parameters. Mostly it’s being used for apple trees in America and cherry trees in Japan.”
Fuentes estimates that point quadrat analysis takes 10 minutes per plant, plus another 10 minutes for the calculations. VitiCanopy does the job in seconds for each plant. Of course, development of the technology is much slower; The Vineyard of the Future team spent more than four years working on the app. “You can build an app in a day to get numbers but to see if the numbers mean something is a different story... the validation is much longer,” says Fuentes. “You need to test them in different environments and countries.”
Now they’re working on adding features to the app, such as real-time analysis of the vine selfies to predict key facets of the ultimate harvest – for example, sugar, acid and polyphenol content – in time for growers to modify growing conditions and affect the quality of their harvest.
“We’re also integrating biological sensors with the digital realm,” says Fuentes. Dogs are being taught to hunt for pests and diseases in the vineyard, in much the same way as sniffer dogs are trained. The hounds – beagles, Labradors and German shepherds – are all excellent students but Fuentes says any dog can learn to wear a backpack containing a phone with an app. “They’re trained to go plant by plant to find a specific pheromone or scent and they sit down when they detect their stimuli.” The app registers that they’re sitting and a GPS position is automatically recorded. Handlers simply follow the dogs around the vineyard. At the end, the app, which has been sending the data to the cloud in real time, generates a map of infection in the vineyard or field.
It’s fast, precise and less invasive than, say, the old-style detection of the muchfeared grape phylloxera. Finding the microscopic root-feeding insect requires digging a pit, excavating the roots and having them inspected by an entomologist. “It’s complicated and expensive,” says Fuentes, whereas dogs can detect pheromones up to 60 centimetres deep in the soil.
The only trouble is, growers can be slow to accept change. “It’s a very particular culture and they don’t believe much in new technologies,” says Fuentes. “You need to demonstrate it in the field and it needs to be really easy to use. When they see what it can do, they’re amazed.”