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Drones offer the chance of real-time micro-climate information

07 Apr 2017
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This project is supported by funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment as part of its Rural R&D for Profit programme.

Drones may soon have more value in the wine sector than simply filming sweeping panoramic vistas for videos and online marketing materials.

Research at the University of South Australia is exploring whether unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) could be used to provide accurate, immediate and cost-effective snapshots of the micro-climate anywhere in or above vineyards.

Professor Anthony Finn, the Research Professor of Autonomous Systems at UniSA’s Defence and Systems Institute, is certainly excited by its potential. While his three-year project – funded by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture as part of its Rural R&D for Profit programme and Wine Australia – is just beginning, there’s been some serious science and high-level collaboration to get to this stage.

Since Professor Finn had a ‘mini-Eureka moment’ in front of the whiteboard, he’s been talking or working with the Australian Research Council, the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Fund, the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), Aerosonde, private consultants, leading wine companies, the Bureau of Meteorology and the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado. The latter provided detailed atmospheric data (the kind you need a super computer to generate) to prove that the idea would work in theory and inspired the new project.

The theory, in simple terms, is that if you equip a UAV with a normal camera and a long-range infra-red camera set up to work as a temperature sensor you can measure the temperature of vines, grapes, buds and the ground itself.

Crucially, however, as drones make a very distinctive noise, by measuring this and converting it to sound speed between the ground sensors and the UAV you can create 3D snapshots of temperature and wind velocity up to a height of 500 metres. ‘It’s very much like taking an MRI of the sky’, Professor Finn said. ‘Just like the scans a doctor would order if you went to hospital.’

There is a lot of signal processing involved, but when you put all the bits together it allows you to monitor and assess temperature and wind conditions at the meso and micro scale without needing masses of very expensive equipment.

‘The vision is that vignerons would have a bunch of microphones in their vineyard, solar or battery powered, and weather protected. They’d have a drone, and when it’s needed it would fly around, make its natural noise, take pictures and land,’

Professor Anthony Finn


‘The data would then be processed and you would have a near real-time view of what’s going on in terms of temperature and wind profiles and you could decide whether turning on the frost fan or irrigating makes sense.’

Equally valuable for long-term planning is the detailed picture of how topography creates different climatic conditions throughout a vineyard.

Professor Finn saw immediate application in high-value agricultural sectors such as wine and almonds, and the response from wine companies and other wine sector researchers was positive.

Penfolds has made available a 10-hectare vineyard in the Barossa for the project. A small multi-rotor UAV will be used to collect data that will then be examined by Professor Finn and a combination of specialists from the NCAR, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and the wine sector, to assess micro-climate patterns and potential triggers for fruit/vine damage.

In the second year, the collected data will be combined using commercially available communications and internet protocols, allowing information processing to occur in near real time. In the third year, the trials will move to a fully instrumented 50-hectare vineyard.

‘We already have data where we’ve seen thermals developing so you can literally see the temperature rise in one part of the microphone array and the wind patterns form this big circular pattern that goes up where the land gets hot and downwards when it finds a cool spot. You can literally watch the wind,’ Professor Finn said.

A 2D cross-section of the atmosphere 600m long by 600m high. Wind is shown as a set of white streamlines, with arrows pointing in the direction of flow and temperature is depicted as per the scale on the right of the image.

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This content is restricted to wine exporters and levy-payers. Some reports are available for purchase to non-levy payers/exporters.