Drones have become increasingly popular in agriculture and horticulture over the last decade, whether taking aerial photographs of a property, checking water lines or in some cases even mustering stock. Machinery editor Mark Daniel takes a closer look at the developments in this area...
Marlborough-based company GCH UAV is proving what can be achieved using drones in conjunction with advanced sensors and analytic software. The company has been operating in the province since 2017, providing aerial mapping, vineyard analytics and multispectral/thermal imagery services to vineyards.
Operations Manager Colin Aitchison, himself a drone pilot, says it offers the ability to view a vineyard from above with unprecedented levels of detail. "What is interesting about working with vineyards is the diversity of what people are requesting. What might be super important for one vineyard isn't even on the radar for the next. But once we are up flying, they are finding all sorts of value in the data."
Operating under the brand of Vineflight for its viticulture work, the company can create a digital replica of a vineyard through aerial mapping. After the data is processed, customers are presented with an accurately georeferenced map and 3D model for use in third-party GIS software.
As well as reducing operational costs and time in the field, the digital replica allows managers to understand the terrain better, more accurately measure rows or blocks and monitor change over time.
GCH UAV has also partnered with two software companies, Aerobotics and VineView, for more advanced vineyard analytics. By capturing footage of a vineyard using multispectral or thermal imagery, GCH UAV can help growers conduct analysis on such areas as crop cover removal, individual vine count, missing vine count, canopy gap measurementl, vine level vigour, and vigour zones.
The Vineyard Analytic system allows vineyard managers to assess vine health, identify missing vines and identify the extent of disease or stress. Scheduling harvest activities and making fertiliser and water management decisions can also be carried out with greater insight, says Colin. "There was a lot of hype a few years ago that this type of technology would be a massive game changer for vineyard management. But it is just another tool to help them troubleshoot and sanity check what they see on the ground. Sometimes, having that bird's eye view can explain what they are seeing on the ground and give them that bigger picture."
In one example of its work, Cloudy Bay contracted the company during two growing seasons to undertake aerial imaging of 430 hectares of vineyards. In a testimonial, Cloudy Bay Viticulturist John Flanagan said the maps they produced were an invaluable tool for ongoing vineyard management. "The service they provided has given us a very good understanding of the vigour and growth of our different blocks, which has helped to formulate customised management plans for specific sites."