Don't Drone Me.. Bro. / by Keith Saarloos


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THAT NEW CABERNET SAUVIGNON? MADE WITH A ROBUST BOUQUET AND FULL-BODIED DRONES

CALIFORNIA'S VINE RANGERS EMPLOY GROUND AND AERIAL DRONES TO HELP VINEYARD FARMERS BOOST GRAPE PRODUCTION, SO CONSUMERS GET MORE WINE.

BY ELIZABETH SEGRAN

Every day, winemakers walk up and down vineyards hoping to catch early signs of disease in their grapes. It’s an important part of their job because the minute fungus or bacteria get to the crops, things go south fast: entire harvests can be lost in a matter of days.

“By the time winemakers see visible signs of disease, it’s too late,” says David Baeza, founder and CEO of Vine Rangers. “At that point, they have to use the nuclear option and spray all their crops with pesticide; it’s like using chemotherapy to take care of an ordinary cold.”

Living close to Santa Barbara, Baeza had been hearing his vineyard-owning friends discussing their winemaking woes for many years, but nobody seemed to be thinking about how technology could help solve some of these problems. “Winemakers can sometimes be neophytes when it comes to applying technology,” says Baeza, who has spent his career in the tech sector, most recently as a VP at Citrix. Then it hit him: drones.

With the input of winemaking experts at University of California, Santa Barbara, Baeza recently launched Vine Rangers, a startup that uses air and ground level drones equipped with near-infrared cameras to inspect vineyards for possible crop diseases. “We see this as helping farmers to shift from reactive to proactive farming,” says Baeza. He says that until now, a few winemakers have tried to design customized drones to survey their own vineyards, which is a very expensive proposition. Vine Rangers, meanwhile, is the first low-cost drone platform to hit the vineyard market. It provides farmers with drones, software storage and processing for $20 a month per acre. The company even flies the drones, making it a turn-key system. (If winemakers were to purchase their own vine-watching drone, it could cost as much as $30,000.)

The drones gather data about grapes that would be undetectable to the human eye, allowing farmers to identify patches of disease-ridden crops and precision spray them with pesticides, rather than showering the whole vineyard. The overuse of pesticides can adversely affect both the taste of wine and the ecology of the vineyard by, for instance, killing off honeybees.

Vine Rangers also stitches together the raw images of the vines at canopy level with the airborne images, then processes this data with color spectrum analysis to give farmers important insights about their crops. Through an iOS or Android app, farmers can see the growth of the canopy, ripeness of the fruit, soil water penetration, in addition to the possibility of disease. “It ultimately helps them improve the consistency of fruit, which is a top priority to a farmer,” says Baeza.

Baeza sees Vine Rangers as an extension of the quantified-self movement. Many people are curious (okay, obsessed) about how their body is behaving or reacting to the environment. “Vineyards are also living things—this is like a quantified vineyard,” says Baeza. “Vineyard owners want to know everything they can about how their grapes are doing, but most do not have the tools to do this well.” Rather than relying on aggregate data or studies, Vine Rangers gives farmers unique insights into the conditions of their particular vineyard and, by extension, help them to improve production.

UCSB, which has embraced farming technology, is working with Vine Rangers on a three-year pilot program that will process and analyze the data received by the drones. Vine Rangers is hoping to expand the company’s reach over the next few years. Two wineries in Los Olivos, California—Saarloos and Sons, and Firestone Vineyard—serve as winery advisors, providing feedback that helps Vine Rangers improve the way drones can help make more wine.

[Photos: courtesy of Vine Rangers]

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