French winemakers add drones to the viticulture mix
Producers in the region of Fronton are at the forefront of experiments with digital tools in procedures such as mapping out vineyards
The sun is shining over a vineyard in the Fronton region of southwestern France, where wine-growing began in Roman times. The only sound is the buzzing of a distant tractor.
That’s about to be disrupted by a flying robot.
Nikola Nemcova, a former surveyor, walks through the vine stalks carrying a large backpack. She pulls out what look like three curved pieces of Styrofoam, clips them together, checks the wind direction and throws the finished product into the air with a boomerang toss. The white drone, looking like a cross between a spaceship and a seagull, reaches 150m in a few seconds, emitting a loud hum all the while.
“You have to check for obstacles on the ground and scan the sky for potential hazards,” said Nemcova, who has been working for French drone maker Delair for a year-and-a-half. “Helicopters and drones don’t mix well.”
While the wine-making region of Fronton can’t rival Bordeaux’s chateaus, its producers are at the forefront of experiments with digital tools typically found at Amazon. Winemakers are flying sophisticated drones laden with custom software that lets them monitor plots for sick plants, predict output and map vineyards down to the size of a grape.
This isn’t your everyday toy drone. These are big, stable, sophisticated flying robots for businessMichael de Lagarde, CEO of Delair
Delair has worked with winemakers in the Minervois and Gaillac regions, including on an experiment to combat a phytoplasma disease. Cognac maker Hennessy has used Delair’s technology as well.
Consumer demand for drones is slacking off and air delivery of packages is still a long way off. But winemakers are only one group — along with farmers, miners, construction companies, power utilities and rail operators — that increasingly are using drones to gather information faster and more precisely than humans can on the ground.
“This isn’t your everyday toy drone. These are big, stable, sophisticated flying robots for business,” said Michael de Lagarde, CEO of Delair, a start-up based near Toulouse that makes not just the aircraft but data-analysis software for them.
“Our clients don’t care for drone fun. They measure cost, return on investment and performance,” De Lagarde said.
Unlike consumers, businesses are prepared to pay the hefty price tag required for quick-precision measuring, and artificial intelligence software that will help crunch through the data. They want sophisticated machines that will self-navigate for kilometres along a set flight path, and are prepared to cope with strict regulation, including the need to train dedicated pilots.
Delair’s basic model, the one Nemcova catapulted into the sky, is about 1m wide, weighs 3kg and costs about €15,000. It takes only a minute or so to fly over 1.3km² of vines, snapping detailed photos through the camera located on its belly. Then it manoeuvres an elegant bird-like landing in a clearing.
The captured photos, once assembled by Delair software, turn into a highly realistic 3D rendering: a video-game-like universe, or a Google Maps on steroids. The detail of the vine on the virtual map goes down to smaller than 1.3cm. By studying it, winemakers figure out answers to questions such as how much fertiliser to spray based on the abundance of foliage.
Nemcova, who earned her pilot’s licence in the Czech Republic in 2015, jumped from surveying to drones “as a way to do the same line of work better and much faster”, she said as she took apart the curved wings and stowed away the body of the aircraft, its on-board memory now packed with data. “Drones are the future.”