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Guest Column On the Fly in Wine Country

Author: Geoff Smick
March, 2017 Issue

Agricultural uses are one of the drone industry’s top markets, especially for grape growers.


This is an exciting time for vineyard operators. For those with access to an off-the-shelf Global Positioning System (GPS) unit, they can collect data in the field, upload the coordinates to a data viewer, and then visualize the data overlaid on a high-resolution drone aerial photograph in the office. The result of all this innovation is more precise and sophisticated data, which makes for healthier and more productive vineyards.

The passing of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act in the 1970s established environmental regulations that extend to agricultural practices including viticulture. Since that time, environmental consulting firms have helped navigate the complex arena of environmental regulatory policy. For example, riparian habitat, wetlands, and species are all protected under federal, state, and often county policies. WRA, Inc., has supported the wine industry for several decades, from vineyard site selection, development, permitting, and maintenance. Understanding the biological constraints of a potential vineyard site is a key step before submitting an application for development approval. Recent advances in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology, ‑aka drones‑now allows for substantial portions of this type of work to happen more efficiently. Agricultural uses are one of the drone industry’s top markets, especially for grape growers. Recent press has focused on how aerial photography is being used to assess vine health across large swaths of vineyards. While some of this is being captured by drones, much of it in the greater Napa and Sonoma valleys is being collected by expensive fixed-wing manned aircraft there are plenty of inexpensive uses for drones for small- and medium-sized growers.


Last year marked a major milestone in drone regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration released their new regulations for commercial drone use, requiring commercial operators using drones that weigh less than 5 kilograms to have a licensed and registered pilot, and keep the drone within line-of-sight of the operator at all times. These regulations changed the face of commercial drone usage in the region, requiring the use of certified drone operators. While no one can predict what future regulatory changes may be in store, the drone industry will be vying to get regulations relaxed so drones may be used more widely.

Vineyard conversions

A great use of drone-derived information is for vineyard conversion planning and permitting. For properties of up to several hundred acres, a drone can fly the entire site in a matter of hours and collect detailed aerial photography and topography for a fraction of cost of a fixed-wing survey. This information can be used for vegetation and topographic mapping. If there are sensitive wetlands, streams, riparian or oak woodland habitats, these can often be delineated on these detailed aerials and the necessary setbacks applied. Once the aerial photograph and topography are in a Geographic Information System (GIS), slope analysis can be done efficiently and the property divided into various slope zones to help with project planning. Solar radiation analysis including heat maps can be generated to show the warmer versus cooler portions of a property. Soil types and storm water flow lines can be added and the property delineated into micro watersheds to assist with storm water control planning.  All of these tools can help facilitate a more streamlined local approval process for vineyard conversions.

Vineyard maintenance

For existing vineyards, drone flights and the associated aerial photography and topographic mapping are inexpensive enough to allow vineyard operators to collect the information on a relatively routine basis and incorporate it in to their data management repertoire. Flying over an existing vineyard seasonally (or after a large storm or frost, for example), can help a vineyard manager make informed decisions with accurate data in a timely manner. Data collected in subsequent flights can be compared against the original to help understand change over time. For example, it can be used to assess erosion or crop damage after a large storm, or help assess understory growth and compare it to solar radiation zones. Aerial photographs generated from drones can be used by sophisticated agricultural software such as VineView for even more vine-health specific applications. 

While the commercial drone industry is still emerging, recent advances in flight automation and image processing have made the technology usable for a variety of new uses. Improved functionality is expected to be available as equipment manufacturers design sensors that are smaller and lighter for small commercial drones to carry. But for now, small, unmanned aircraft offer grape growers a practical, efficient solution to managing their vineyards. The end result is better wine.

Geoff Smick is president of WRA, Inc., an environmental consulting firm headquartered in Marin County and in business since 1981. For more information, go to




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