Vineyard of Future: Interview with Sigfredo Fuentes

Di seguito l’intervista completa (in inglese) da cui ho tratto spunto per il mio post Il Vigneto del Futuro: Vineyard of Future.

Many thanks to dr Fuentes to answering all my questions.

I’ve found news about VoF searching on precision wine growing. Australia is ever been in front line for new technologies, expecially in wine. 

1 – How much Australian wine growers spend fornew technologies like UAV’s, sensors, robots?

There is very scattered information in this aspect and there are no formal studies about formal spending of consumers, specifically from winegrowers in Australia. Maybe Wine Australia will have some more information in this aspect, specially for funding money spent on research and applications for the wine industry in Australia. The latter, since Australian Grape growers pay a levy every year, which Wine Australia administer for research that benefits the industry. These funds are given in a competitive basis to research institutions. In 2015 there was a specific call called Digital Viticulture, which addressed all these topics. This in a sense can serve as a scope that we are in early stages in the formal application of this technology for commercial purposes. This beside what you can find in advertisements from private companies offering services using drones and robots for management either in the irrigation, fertilization, pest and disease control, etc.

2 – Who are the typical customer of this technology?

Form the last answer, I can talk about interest on the technology. In this sense, big, medium and small growers are interested in these kind of technology. In the near future, I envision that a huge amount of processed information can be accessible to growers. When the competition in the market increases. Prices of services will go down significantly, making even small growers to have access of site specific information using sensor networks, drone technology and remote sensing and big data

3 – Do you think vineyards can be transform in Smart Vineyards (like Cities in Smart Cities)?

That will be the idea. However, it is difficult to envision a fully automated vineyard in the near future. At the moment the systems to be implemented are thought to support the decision making process, since Winegrowing has a lot of inputs within the decision process, not only soil-plant-atmosphere aspects, but commercialization issues, wine style, consistency, etc.

4 – Can you tell me about one or two success case of VoF projects?

In the research area there are quite a few and that have resulted in the implementation of this technology to the industry.

1) The first one was the development of a 3D soil wetting mapping software (WPA) based on soil moisture sensor technology to visualize in real time soil wetting and fertilizer patterns for precision viticulture. This offers great advantages to the growers since they can have snapshots of the lateral and in depth movement of water and nutrients through irrigation events. Not only this but they can observe the rate of uptake by roots in real time. The main advantage is that growers can target irrigation and fertilizers to those layers with maximum uptake. Just as an example in this area, it was shown that maximum nitrate uptake is in the first 30 cm of root depth. This is logical since the bulk of newly developed roots are in that layer and are the ones more permeable to solutes. With this information, growers can target irrigations for different soil types and physical / chemical composition to maximize uptake and minimize leakage to deeper layers (water table, with associated environmental problems such salinity and health problems with nitrate as cancerogenic compound). With this, growers also increase water and fertilizer use efficiency and decrease costs. This software has been commercially adopted by Sentek Pty Ltd, one of the major soil moisture companies in the world (Australian owned and based).

2) The development of the VitiCanopy App to assess canopy architecture and structure with smartphones and tablet Pcs. Just with a snapshot, growers are able to quantify and record differences in canopy vigour in the field. This is by indirectly measuring leaf area index, canopy cover and canopy porosity through image and gap analysis algorithms. Canopy growth is associated to the crop coefficient and hence, a good estimation of this factor in the field can be used for irrigation scheduling purposes. It has also been shown that canopy porosity is associated to increase of color and aromas in berries. The latter due to increased light transmission through the canopy to the fruit area which enhance the development of the precursor compounds for these quality traits. It also increases fructification for the next season due to light on buds. This App I freely available and more details and studies can be found in the VoF website.

3) The VoF not only focuses in the development and implementation of digital sensors but also biological sensor. We are studying the implementation of trained dogs to detect pests and diseases coupled with digital technology. It is well known the use of dogs to detect drugs, food or money in Airports, this based on the fact that dogs have 1000 million times more sensitive noses than humans. A specific study in Australia is the training of dogs to detect Phylloxera , which is a well-known insect that attacks primarily roots of grapevines and it almost wiped out the wine industry from Europe in the mid 1800’s. Detecting phylloxera is a problem and is a critical factor in practices to avoid the expansion of this pest. As an insect Phylloxera secretes pheromones that can be detected by dogs. The digital technology part comes by just developing a simple App to tap into sensors from smartphones (accelerometer and GPS), so readings can be stored every second. The phone is strapped on the tdog’s back, which is trained to seat when detecting the specific stimuli, hence registering the geolocation, which enables later on to generate maps of distribution of the specific stimuli. Another application, which is not viticulture related is to detect  and map distribution of truffles in the field.

4) The use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) with multispectral and infrared thermal cameras has been successfully applied to viticulture to assess plant water status for irrigation scheduling purposes and canopy vigor at the plant by plant level. With algorithms developed by our research group at the Melbourne Unmanned Aerial System Integrated Platform (MUASIP) belonging to The University of Melbourne it is possible to map at the plant by plant level, and even to the sub-metre level: i) crop water stress indices maps; ii) stem water potential maps; iii) evapotranspiration maps (been able to decouple even evaporation from transpiration) iv) canopy vigour and structure maps (similar to VitiCanopy with an image from the top per plant and fully automated analysis). This service has been applied to commercial vineyards in the Coonawarra area in South Australia.

There are more success stories but these are the main ones. For more information and specific stories visit VoF.

5 – What do you say about Italy or France?

The VoF is closely working with partners in Europe, specifically the University of La Rioja in Span through Prof. Javier Tardaguila and it is in conversations with Prof. Andrea Pitacco from the University of Padova. As partners of the VoF we collaborate in current research interests in the areas of remote sensing, the use of UAVs and digital Viticulture topics in general.

6 – I read the IR-busmonitor project on Melbourne city. Is it started? How the total cost for the City is?

This is a new project that received funding a couple of months ago and will start in September, since we are in winter right now and the main tree species to be monitored (Elms) are in dormancy. The idea of the project is to implement an automated system of monitoring growth and tree water status using a newly developed camera and the Internet of Things concept for data transmission, analysis and delivery of processed information. The cameras will be on top of public transport making effectively every tram or bus a monitoring robot of the green infrastructure of cities. This project funded a preliminary assessment of the system. Partners of this project are companies such as Digital Falcon (Melbourne based) and Telstra. Both Australian owned and based.

7 – I’ve not found public maps (on Google Earths, for exemple) based on wine data, or GIS maps. It seems like sharing data was not a good wine growers habit. What do you think about?

There is not much information about winegrowing or specifics from growers. This mainly due to the lack of data sharing culture among private companies. However, we are doing studies and we will be soon deploying interesting maps related to winegrowing in Australia. Just to mention an example, we have studied for 4 years the development of rotundone, a sesquiterpene the peppery compound that makes Shiraz wines a trademark. This work was developed by my then PhD student Dr Pangzhen Zhang whos is doing currently a Post Doctorate with me and Dr Kate Howell from the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences.

The peppery content of Shiraz is high in Australia’s wines specially from those regions with moderate to cool climate. We were able to model rotundone content, synthesis and dynamics and we can generate maps of rotundone levels from Australian climatic conditions. Not only this, we will be able to see how these regions will move in a climate change scenario (most likely moving southwards, leaving small pockets related to microclimates and growing grapevines in higher altitudes. This same concept idea is under development to be translated to other aspects of winegrowing and plant requirements.

8 – Robots are more used in Agricolture than Viticulture, may be because little spaces from rows. Where robotics industry is moving themself for fill in this gap? 

The row spacing limiting factor probably is more an issue in Europe, since here is 3 m wide as in USA. Mainly due to a tradition of getting machinery from USA and suitable growing land is still not as expensive compared to Europe.

There is also a tradition issue in the sense that viticulture involves grower with a tight sense between the plant and the environment, which is often used for marketing (terroir, organic, biodynamic, etc). So, UAS and robots might have a cultural crash for ready adoption from some growers. In Australia I have not encounter much this issue, but maybe it can be more in Europe.

9 – Big Data, or simply Data Analysis, is ever more important in analyzing ever more data; are you (VoF) using this? and in University?

We are using big data analytics as a preliminary layer of information for important decisions into UAS and robotic system applications. In Australia there are a lot of free information such as the Australia soil and landscape project and the Australia Water Availability Project. This is critical also to have an idea of impacts of climate change on applications and models developed. Climate is changing rapidly and an efficient system needs to incorporate this variable to assess profitability, resilience and adaptability of the application of new and emerging technologies.

Small Bio:  Dr Sigfredo Fuentes is a Senior Researcher / Lecturer in Wine Science at the University of Melbourne. His scientific interests ranges from climate change impacts on agriculture, development of new computational tools for plant physiology, new and emerging sensor technology, proximal, short and long range remote sensing using robots and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

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