Drones + Wine: how developers at 3D Robotics are working with farmers to harvest grapes

Kenwood, Ca. — Something’s up at Kunde Family Vineyards.

Developers at 3D Robotics went to Kunde Family Vineyards, a family-owned vineyard, to test a project that could revolutionize agriculture by providing farmers with on-demand aerial images of their land.

Those images give farmers a bird’s-eye view, allowing them to see vine stress and color variation. Those variations can help indicate when to it’s best to harvest the grapes.


3D Robotics used both autonomous, fixed-wing planes and multi-rotors with a point-and-shoot camera mounted inside.

“They allowed me to select the section of the vineyard to sample these grapes,” DRNK Wines Winemaker Ryan Kunde said. “If I didn’t have that imagery — I know of some general variation from top to bottom, but I didn’t know about that crescent down at the bottom of the vineyard.”

That crescent is probably home to deeper soil and more water, Kunde said. Those differences mean Kunde can harvest his grapes earlier than he anticipated.

Those images were taken automatically from the plane based upon GPS location, camera coverage area and altitude, and were then stitched together in the field to generate a 3D model. The camera was mounted inside a plane equipped with an APM 2.6 autopilot system with GPS navigation and airspeed sensor. The whole process took under an hour.

“As their operations get more and more high tech and more slimmed down, they have a need to pick things at just the right time, and for Ryan, that’s the differentiator,” said Brandon Basso, Senior Research and Development Engineer at 3D Robotics. “He goes out and sells the fact that he can pick his grapes at exactly the right week.”

Aerial imagery is not uncommon to farming, but using a small, autonomous aircraft could make a big difference.

“You’d have to schedule some company with a plane to fly out at least a week in advance, and you might not know that you want to look at which vineyard at which time.” Kunde said. “This allowed us to do it today. It’s a low-cost solution to it.”

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Comment by MikeInFrance on October 2, 2013 at 3:36pm

Very interesting....

But why did you illustrate this with a multi-rotor when the text and video show a wing?

Is it because 3D Robotics don't sell wings on their store?

If so why didn't they use the ArduPlane?

Comment by Sally French on October 2, 2013 at 3:43pm

Great question! We actually used both a plane and a multi-rotor. Surveying is airframe independent, and as our engineer Brandon likes to say "fly the camera, not the plane." For the video, we chose to just stick with the plane, but you could use either. Check out Brandon's really great blog post here: http://diydrones.com/profiles/blogs/how-to-plan-missions-for-aerial...

Comment by Gerard Toonstra on October 2, 2013 at 4:08pm

It'd be really interesting to understand the economic difference this makes. It says "just the right time", but what difference does this make economically?

Comment by Gary McCray on October 2, 2013 at 4:41pm

Grape vineyard surveying is a truly great use of our capabilities.

Determination of growth condition in grapes is absolutely critical to get the best harvest for wine.

It will also make it easier to determine under watered and over watered vines and that also is critical to success.

Sometimes 3 or 4 days difference in these determinations can make the difference between success or failure of a given harvest or at least a huge difference in the value of the resulting wine.

$4.00 a bottle versus $30.00 a bottle.

It will also make it easier to spot specific problem or blighted areas for remedial action.

Comment by Jack Crossfire on October 2, 2013 at 4:53pm

A PhD from UC Berkeley in robotics is a lot more than it used to take to get into the business of RC copter drones.  It's a sign of the maturity of the technology.

Comment by Gerard Toonstra on October 2, 2013 at 5:11pm

@Gary: really?  Potentially $4 vs $30?  That difference is astounding!

Comment by Gary Mortimer on October 2, 2013 at 5:15pm

When the off the shelf low cost (ish) NVIR camera comes to pass it will pop the cork for this sort of work.

Comment by Gary McCray on October 2, 2013 at 5:32pm

Hi Gerard,

To say that the Wine Vineyard business is volatile is a considerable understatement.

To the Vineyard the actual difference can be that their grapes are worthless and unsaleable.

Or usable only for very cheap wine.

Most Vineyards in the US either sell to or are affiliated with larger bottling Vintners that purchase their grapes and then blend them into the appropriate quality of wine - and they pay accordingly.

Basically any edge they can get in determining perfect conditions can spell the difference between large profit and huge loss.

I live in Mendocino County California a major vineyard county and right next to Napa County and previously lived in Lake County, also a major Vineyard area bordering Napa County.

We have a wine called 2 buck "Chuck" actually about $4.00 a bottle now and that is where the substandard stuff goes, so yes $4.00 a bottle and a lot of Vineyards produce wines that regularly go for over $50.00 a bottle so I am sticking to my story.

Comment by Harry on October 2, 2013 at 5:36pm

There are areas in the country that make growing grapes "tricky".  California is famous for its grapes while Virginia has a tougher time.  Thomas Jefferson tried it and gave up.  Imagine if Jefferson could have had a daily view of his crop, he might have been able to save a vintage or two and vineyards in Virginia would be more than boutique or novelty.

Comment by Gerard Toonstra on October 2, 2013 at 6:52pm

Very interesting. I bet a relatively simple measure can do wonders for improving the business then. Here the wine market is pretty good, people put down $25 quite easily for a box of wines. There are social parties all the time and they literally buy in quantities. However, the wine needs to have a name, so it'll take consecutive years of good performance before people switch.

It's not the local wines that people purchase though, it's the imported ones. The local ones are sulphuric, bitter and just plain awful. The imported Malbec's or Maipo valley or so are the ones they go after at $20-$25 per bottle. Not sure if it's possible to make really great wines "in theory". It's certainly a very interesting topic to learn more about.


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