Drone Reveals Stressed Vines

New York-based Johnson Estate Winery puts UAV to use

by Linda Jones McKee
A drone looking east from about 150 feet shows three wine grape cultivars at Johnson Estate Winery. A spot in the middle of the Delaware vines shows almost no leaves, indicating a drainage or a nutrition issue.
Westfield, N.Y.—The day after harvest finished at Johnson Estate Winery in Westfield, N.Y., winery owner Fred Johnson took his brand new drone out to the vineyard and sent it up to shoot video of the countryside around the winery. Less than a week later, Johnson had a 2-minute, 20-second video featuring spectacular vineyard photography, trees at the height of fall color and Lake Erie in the distance.

However, Johnson plans to use the drone for much more than taking pretty pictures. Row crop farmers have used GPS soil mapping for several years, and now extension personnel from the Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory—located just down the road from the winery—have started developing vineyard maps that combine information from soil and spatial sensors to help growers obtain more accurate crop estimation. Last year, the extension specialists mapped Johnson’s vineyards, so he now has the coordinates for his 110 acres of vineyard.

“I plan to take videos of our vineyards with the drone’s camera about four times a year: once when the vines have about 1.5 feet of growth, and again at full growth. I’ll definitely do one before harvest and one after harvest,” Johnson told Wines & Vines. “Stressed vines drop leaves more quickly, and the exact location shows up in the videos. I can get a feeling when driving the tractor down the rows, but I can’t take photos of the weak spots as I drive.”

According to Johnson, the glacial till soils of the area between Lake Erie and the escarpment have diagonal bands of clay soil running through them, and those bands show up as the most stressed vines in the photos. “We need to fertilize more in those areas that are stressed. There’s less available to the vines because of the soil structure.”

drone vineyard
The bands of brighter yellow Riesling vines are planted on heavier soils at Johnson Estate Winery.
Johnson’s drone is a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced Drone that navigates using GPS locations it obtains from numerous GPS satellites from both the United States and Russia. It can fly for up to 23 minutes on a single battery charge and go up to 1.2 miles from its home base. “It’s ability to navigate is scary,” Johnson commented. “It knows how far away it is from home base and how much battery power is left. If you continue to fly it when the battery is getting low, it will ignore what you tell it and go home on its own.”

The drone also knows how high it is flying. While small planes must stay more than 500 feet when flying over ground (lower altitudes are allowed over water or desert areas), drones are programmed not to go above 400 feet. “If you do break through that 400-foot elevation, a voice will come on and tell you the drone is flying too high,” Johnson said. Operators must also keep the drone in sight. As of this point in time in New York, drone owners are not required to register their personal use drones, but Johnson anticipates that new rules may be coming in the future.

The camera on Johnson’s DJI Advanced Drone is a 2.7K video camera that takes 1920p x 1080p video. It has a built-in 3-axis stabilization gimbal that keeps the camera level and has image-transmission technology that allows the operator to see what the camera is seeing as the drone flies hundreds of feet from the operator. For those who prefer a higher resolution camera, the DJI Professional Drone has a 4K video camera. 

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