WSU tests drones to watch over vineyards

Birds are a major nuisance to grape growers, and now Washington State University is working on a program to use drones to deter them.

PROSSER, Wash. – Drones are finding their way into a growing number of industries and use cases, and one of the latest ideas is crop protection. Washington State University (WSU) has a team working to use drones to protect vineyards from birds.

Washington State boasts a variety of beautiful vineyards that produce grapes for a sizable and still growing local wine industry. But a growing harvest also makes it increasingly difficult to ensure that the harvest arrives intact.

Birds are a major obstacle, especially flocks of starlings or blackbirds that fly in for dinner just when the grapes are ready to be picked. Birds take whole bunches, and they also eat at the bunches, which allows insects to do more damage.

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“Nearly before harvest or when berry ripeness is high, they feel more attracted to the fruit,” said WSU graduate student Santosh Bhusal, who helped develop the university’s agricultural drone system.

The idea is that by using drones to scare the birds away, breeders can avoid the kind of damage they typically expect each season.

Some wine growers currently use nets to protect their crops, but they are expensive and labor-intensive to set up and maintain. Others have turned to falconry to ward off smaller birds.

But now, after four years of development, WSU’s agricultural drone system is getting some attention. The research team said it hasn’t been perfected yet, but the technology has come a long way.

“What we saw is that when we were flying drones, fewer and fewer birds were moving in and out of the vineyards compared to when we weren’t using the drone,” Bhusal said.

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During early manual drone flights in vineyards, researchers found about a 50 percent reduction in damaged fruit.

Further research helped the team create an automated artificial intelligence system that can detect birds in the area and launch and fly drones without a single human being nearby.

Deterrent features can include shiny propellers and sounds of raptors coming from the drone.

Commercial use for grapes or other crops is likely a few years away, but the team said early results show the concept shows promise.

“Everyone seems excited, so we need to investigate further,” Bhusal said. WSU tests drones to watch over vineyards

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