Photo: Kimberley Low / Wine Australia
Photo: Kimberley Low / Wine Australia
13 Apr 2018
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This project is supported by funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program

Early trials with an innovative vineyard spraying system that uses sensors to accurately control spray rate and direction are showing encouraging results.

University of Queensland (UQ) researchers say their Pesticide Adjusted for the Canopy Environment (PACE) system has been able to reduce the amount of chemicals used by as much as 50 per cent, even at the full canopy stage.

‘You would get even greater savings early in the season and in winter it could be as much as 90 per cent’, said Senior Research Fellow Dr Andrew Hewitt. ‘As the crop grows you get less value from it, but even the minimum value is a 50 per cent per cent saving in chemicals for the same rate of coverage, and that is significant.’

To date, trials on both wine grapes and table grapes have been held in the UQ wind tunnel and in the field.

PACE uses LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors to collect detailed data on a canopy structure to inform spray patterns. The concept is not new, but Dr Hewitt believes they are the only team in the world currently applying it to vineyards.

The beauty of the system is its ease of use. A multi-outlet sprayer is connected to a LiDAR which, as a grower drives through the vineyard, constantly scans the vines on both sides to build up a 3D picture. It sees the leaves, gets an idea of the canopy depth and density, then turns nozzles on and off as required. No canopy, no spray. Also, as the spray rate is automatically adjusted according to canopy density, less canopy means less spray.

Image supplied
The PACE spray system at work

Complementary work is looking at how best to configure the equipment and which nozzles to use to achieve the best coverage. But that is only part of the story.

The research team, led by Dr Hewitt and Research Fellow Dr Chris O'Donnell from UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, is already exploring the potential of two more levels of innovation.

Trials have begun on the use of ‘electronic leaves’ that are placed in key parts of the canopy to monitor whether the real leaves in this area are getting the right coverage. If linked in with the LiDAR system, this would provide for a further degree of automatic adjustment in response to specific canopy conditions.

The final part of the equation is electrostatics – creating an electrostatic charge on the drops to encourage them to ‘stick’ to the leaves, improving target coverage without drift by combining electrostatic spraying with the LiDAR sensor spraying.

Image supplied
The LiDAR sensor system is attached to the sprayer, providing PACE with detailed data on a canopy structure to inform spray patterns

‘This is all still a work in progress. We are getting good data with the LiDAR sensor and the electronic leaf performance but we haven’t yet linked the three things into a full system. But it is very exciting’, Dr Hewitt said.

The success of the LiDAR component on its own has been enough to attract great interest. Its ability to accurately measure the upper and lower limits of any part of the canopy at any time greatly reduces the financial and environmental risks of overspraying.

Taking things further, sensors could monitor overspraying and the potential to leave residues on crops that would affect market access.

‘The sky’s the limit, but we’re not in the business of making and selling anything’, Dr Hewitt said.

‘We’re in the business of doing research to show if something can be done and how accurately. The idea is that any sprayer in the future could be modified with the addition of these systems.’

Equipment manufacturers Silvan Australia and FMR are partners in the project, providing equipment and in-kind support. The researchers also continue to work closely with the USA Department of Agriculture on aspects of the LiDAR technology.

The project is supported by Wine Australia and Hort Innovation, through funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program.

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