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Corinne Kox – a drone pioneer

In partnership with Luxaviation, Corinne Kox (Laurent & Rita Kox estate in Remich) took an important first step for European winemakers last year by treating a number of parcels using a drone. This solution offers great potential, but also requires some fine tuning.

The story created quite a stir in mid-July, with extensive coverage even in the European press. Journalists and photographers gathered to watch a drone fly over a parcel of the Laurent & Rita Kox estate within the Stadtbredimus Dieffert appellation, a stone’s throw from Remich. Although several tests had already been conducted by research bodies in Luxembourg (the Luxembourg Wine Institute), Germany and France, a drone had never been flown by a private estate in the European Union. “The Swiss already use them because their legislation allows them to do so,” explains the young winemaker, Corinne Kox. “Under EU legislation, it’s trickier, but we found a loophole for Luxembourg.”

The drone was owned by Luxaviation, one of the world’s biggest operators of private jets and helicopters, which, as the name implies, is based in the Grand Duchy. When Corinne Kox came to them with the idea, the company was already considering developing this business sector and her enthusiasm was all it took to get them on board. On a hill overlooking the river, the pilot could be seen using a large remote control to guide the aircraft powered by eight rotors with precision as it skimmed over the tops of the vines.

The topography of the land and the parcel’s borders were programmed into the control software for the device, enabling it to make methodical, smooth passes over the vineyard. The exclusively organic agents used were sprayed by four nozzles that closed once a row had been completed. The pilot trained by Luxaviation was meticulous in organising the operation. After all, the drone weighs 10kg empty and up to 25kg with a full load, so it is essential to keep it under control.

But why use a drone to treat vines in the first place? Well, it’s certainly no fad for geeks – the benefits are real. A helicopter was once widely used to treat vineyards in the Grand Duchy. However, regulations have become increasingly tight, reducing its operational scope to such an extent that it is only likely to grace the Moselle skies for a few more years. Until now, the only possible substitute was a tractor. However, this comes with drawbacks as well as advantages. For instance, tractors are unable to climb the steepest slopes or negotiate the narrow spaces in old vineyards, and can be dangerous to drive after rainfall. Moreover, their weight compacts the soil, hampering biodiversity, which is vital for subsoil health and therefore beneficial to vines.

The drone proved very useful, especially at the start of the season.

Drones, on the other hand, offer several benefits. For instance, they can fly everywhere, maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres from the tops of the vines. Due to this positioning, there is virtually no risk of the spray drifting, something that cannot be said of helicopters, which operate at a height of 10 or 15m. Drones allow users great flexibility and are very simple to deploy. Winemakers can therefore treat their vineyards at the optimal time, even in brief windows of favourable weather. In contrast, helicopter flights are scheduled on an annual basis irrespective of conditions. Furthermore, such is the precision of drone flight that parcels can be treated individually without the need to treat large areas. Finally, and this is no mere detail for the valley’s inhabitants, drones are completely silent.

The initial results from the first season of testing are encouraging. “It lives up to expectations,” beams Corinne Kox. “Although it takes longer than a tractor, the spray is applied really well. The drone proved very useful, especially at the start of the season when there are few leaves. It’s slightly less easy at the end of the season when vegetation is denser making it more difficult for the spray to reach the grape clusters.”

However, such limitations are not prohibitive since drone technology is evolving at a very rapid pace. The drone used on Corinne Kox’s estate was made in China (DJI) and originally designed for treating rice fields. In contrast, those used in Switzerland, a pioneering country when it comes to drones for wine-growing, are specially designed for winemakers. “They are even more accurate, mainly because the nozzles are different and enable spray to reach the leaves’ undersides and grape clusters, which are often concealed beneath the foliage,” points out Corinne Kox. “Their storage tanks are larger, they’re faster, they fly longer … but they’re also twice the price!”

It remains to be seen how drone flights will be organised in the Grand Duchy. The helicopter is managed by winemakers through a special cooperative known as “Protvigne”. Although it looks increasingly outdated as a solution, could Protvigne switch to drones? Talks are under way, but so far there have been no concrete outcomes – it’s now up to the Moselle wine-growing community to get organised!

« Un grand intérêt pour les parcelles les plus complexes »

Présent sur pratiquement tous les continents, Luxaviation ne veut pas rater ce tournant technologique qu’est l’évolution des drones. Y compris sur le plan de l’agriculture. Le groupe qui possède 260 avions et hélicoptères a donc sauté sur l’occasion pour tester leur usage sur la Moselle. « L’échelle était volontairement limitée car il s’agissait d’une première, mais nous avons atteint nos objectifs, relève le directeur commercial Christophe Lapierre. Nous avons amélioré notre compréhension de la viticulture et nous avons désormais l’ambition de renforcer notre approche et notre organisation. »

Luxaviation est notamment convaincu que le Grand-Duché est un territoire favorable au développement de l’utilisation des drones dans les vignes avec ses coteaux en pentes, ses petites parcelles pas toujours très faciles d’accès et le souhait porté par toujours plus de vignerons de se tourner vers une viticulture de précision, garante d’une grande qualité. « Avec les drones, chaque parcelle peut être traitée indépendamment de ses voisines, souligne-t-il. Nous ne sommes pas dans l’industrialisation des processus, c’est même le contraire !»

Preuve que cette nouvelle technologie touche une corde sensible, des discussions sont déjà entamées avec une quinzaine de vignerons luxembourgeois. « Nous avons déjà repéré plusieurs nouvelles parcelles pour organiser au mieux le calendrier de la nouvelle saison qui, pour nous, sera plus chargée que la précédente, avance Christophe Lapierre. Bien sûr, les domaines ne font pas appel à nous pour traiter toutes leurs vignes, mais nous constatons un grand intérêt pour les parcelles les plus complexes, avec des pentes marquées, où les délimitations rendent les passages terrestres difficiles. » Un deuxième drone est d’ores et déjà opérationnel pour répondre à ces nouvelles demandes.

Un dernier obstacle va de plus tomber cette année : le volet règlementaire va être enfin clarifié. Jusque-là, les drones pouvaient travailler dans les vignes du fait d’un vide juridique mais, désormais, tout sera gravé dans le marbre de la loi.

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