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Don’t Worry: Drones Are Making Sure You’ll Never Have To Go Without Wine

Drones can zoom in on vines that are suffering in droughts and heat waves, protecting precious grapes from destruction.

Don’t Worry: Drones Are Making Sure You’ll Never Have To Go Without Wine
[Photos: Discover Sonoma Wine Country]

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You may soon be drinking Swedish Merlot or Montana Chardonnay, as climate change starts to end traditional wine production in places like France and California. But winemakers in traditional wine-growing regions are trying to fight back against the rising heat. Can technology keep grapes growing in Napa for a little longer?

The challenge is huge. Grapes are known as canaries in the coal mine of agriculture and climate change: As temperatures heat up and places like California and the Mediterranean get drier, ultra-sensitive vineyards will be one of the first crops to fail. By 2050, some experts predict that as much as 85% of wine production–at least with traditional varieties of grapes–will disappear in places like Tuscany.


In Australia, where some vineyards are already starting to move to cooler regions, the Vineyard of the Future is researching ways to adapt. One solution: Using fleets of drones to take detailed shots of the grapes, analyzing that data with an app, and then using automatic irrigation and fertilization to target specific vines that are suffering in a heat wave or drought.

Wine producers have been using sensing and remote imaging for decades, but drones suddenly make the process cheap and more accurate.

“People used to rely on satellite technology or airborne techniques,” says Sigfredo Fuentes, the University of Melbourne researcher who leads the Vineyard of the Future. “It’s expensive, and low resolution. You don’t get much information, and you can’t afford to do it often. Now with drone technology and multicopters, you can do your own monitoring–as long as you comply with regulations.”


The researchers are working on an app that will automatically analyze the images using algorithms, since right now, the process takes careful, time-consuming analysis from an expert.

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In California, winemaker Ryan Kunde of DRNK Wines is using drones the semi-old-fashioned way, and carefully analyzing each of the vineyards he works with to make his wine. “I’ll use my planes to go out in the vineyard and image,” he says. “But an image is just an image. You have to take that and then find out what’s going on. There’s a lot involved–you can’t just fly and that’s the end of it.”

The new app could change that, helping growers understand exactly which grapes are getting overheated and might need extra water, or a change in the canopy or fertilizers. The techniques can help reduce problems like grapes that shrivel in the heat, or extra alcohol; grapes keep getting boozier as temperatures rise.

The techniques can also be used in combination with other new technology, like sunscreen for grapes, or special microsprays that protect grapes from heat waves. But even the most advanced techniques aren’t likely to last very long. “The basic idea is to push the regions that are currently producing to the maximum–trying to extend production for another 10, 15 years,” says Fuentes.

“It’s not a permanent solution,” he says. “In the long term, you need to change varieties, or change regions. You’re changing styles of regions that have been characterized for hundreds of years.”

Your glass of Swedish Merlot is still on its way.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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