Photo: Ian Routledge / Wine Australia

Playing birds at their own game

RD&E News | March 2019
Photo: Ian Routledge / Wine Australia
08 Mar 2019
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Playing birds at their own game in the vineyard – albeit with a hi-tech twist – is showing early promise for grapegrowers in regional New South Wales.

The NSW Regional Program has been trialling an innovative bird control method, using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that mimics bird behaviour across three separate wine-growing regions in NSW.

‘Bird damage is a significant problem for agricultural crops around the globe. In Australia, they cause $300 million in crop losses every year, including winegrapes’, said Darren Fahey, Development Officer Viticulture with the NSW Department of Primary Industries/Plant Systems.

Led by University of Sydney (School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering) PhD candidate Zihao Wang, the team is using an autonomous UAV with bird-sensing capability, mimicked distress noise amplification and a model bird to combat bird damage in winegrapes.

Photos: Zihao Wang, University of Sydney
The NSW Regional Program has been trialing a bird control method, using a UAV that mimics bird behaviour.

The multi-rotor hexacopter drone used in the trials has been fitted with a global positioning system (GPS), an antenna and long-range telemetry radio. Using GPS coordinates and a ground control station (a laptop) the team is able to send the drone out on autonomous missions – and cause it to emit mimicked ‘distress calls.’

However, according to the literature on bird behaviour, a distress call alone is not effective. It needs to be paired with another stimulus for the birds to see the UAV as a predator. So, the team suspended a model crow, inverted, with wings open, in a vertical pose on the UAV’s undercarriage, to provide a visual cue.

‘The intention is to create the impression that the UAV has just caught the crow, and the mimicked distress call is coming from the crow in apparent danger’, explained Darren.

He said results to date indicate that an understanding of bird behaviour, coupled with a UAV, could be a viable bird control method.

‘Certainly, the short-term response from a variety of bird species indicates that the UAV can potentially eliminate birds from the vineyards.’

Darren said early data from a recently completed trial in the Hunter Valley were favourable, and the focus now was to capture data from the Hilltops region followed by Orange during harvest. The UAV data will be compared to bird netting, static reflective devices and a control.  

Information from the trial's outcomes will be available on the Wine Australia website in the near future.

Photo: Darren Fahey, NSW DPI
Steam is one of the alternative control methods that has been tested against current practices.

Alternative weed control is also on the agenda for the NSW Regional Program, and several alternative weed control measures have been evaluated across three wine growing regions of NSW.

The use of recycled organic mulch, straw, flame, steam and a group of non-residual contact desiccants have been tested against current practice in Orange, Hilltops and Mudgee on both organic and conventional commercial vineyards.

Darren said visual and Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) assessments were made to qualify the success of each treatment, along with soil sampling to ascertain if the acids and salts contained in the desiccants elicited any change in soil chemistry.

The completed work will be presented at the 17th Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference (AWITC), to be held in Adelaide in July at a workshop on Sunday 21 July.

Information will also be available on the Wine Australia website in the near future.

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This content is restricted to wine exporters and levy-payers. Some reports are available for purchase to non-levy payers/exporters.