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Drones now being tested on the Schmit-Fohl estate

In 2019, the Laurent & Rita Kox estate was the first to trial drones to (organically) treat its vines (see Vinorama no. 5). This year, six other estates are now keen to try out the technology.

The Schmit-Fohl estate (in Ahn) is currently converting to organic production. Its efforts to work closely with nature are by no means a new development and do not preclude the use of any new technologies that might improve working practices. The family was therefore curious to try out using a drone to spray its vines.

“We have a terraced vineyard on steep slopes in the Koeppchen terroir near Wormeldange,” explains Nicolas Schmit, the eldest son. “Although small at 650 m², it is difficult to cultivate as it cannot be accessed by tractor.” This vineyard planted with Riesling vines in 1972 has rows that are only a metre wide and therefore all the various tasks have to be done manually. “There would be no point in grubbing up alternate rows because it would be impossible to turn the machines around anyway.” 

Previously, they have therefore had to reel out a hosepipe and treat their vines on foot. “To be honest, if this parcel didn’t contain old, well-exposed Riesling vine stocks on such a fantastic terroir, I’m not sure we’d keep it!” says the young winegrower with a wry smile.

Using a drone therefore has an appeal in such difficult conditions. From the air, the steep slopes and row layout are no longer a problem. However, this solution, which is still in its development phase, also has its limitations, as Corinne Kox has already observed.

Firstly, it has emerged that using a drone does not save any time. “The parcel is small and the Luxaviation pilot controls the drone manually, since it would take just as long to programme the flight by GPS,” points out Nicolas Schmit. “And with a capacity of 10 litres, it requires frequent refills. At the end of the day, it doesn’t take any longer to treat the vines manually.”

Moreover, these first-generation drones still do not spray sufficiently powerfully to ensure full leaf coverage. “At the start of the season when there aren’t many leaves, it works very well, but as the vegetation cover thickens, it gets trickier.” To play it safe, Nicolas Schmit therefore also treats this parcel manually in periods of increased risk of disease. This is a particularly wise precaution as only preventive and not curative measures are possible in organic cultivation.

Ultimately, the prospect of using drones undoubtedly has its appeal, especially on parcels with challenging topography. However, it is also clear that this solution has not yet been fully developed. Nevertheless, since Luxembourg is ahead of the game in this field, these are merely preliminary tests. And since there is interest from manufacturers and operators such as Luxaviation (which has even set up a dedicated office), it seems highly likely that the experience gained from these trials will enable equipment and methods to develop very quickly.

"We have already done 500 flights this year"

Christophe Lapierre, Luxaviation President of Wholesale Services, welcomes Luxembourgian winemakers’ interest in drones, which has increased to such an extent that he is no longer able to respond to all enquiries. The company is even set to supply its services across the Moselle next year as German winemakers are also keen on adopting the technology.

Luxaviation launched its drones division last year, which has already prompted significant interest among winemakers. Did you expect such a high level of demand?

Christophe Lapierre: We are currently conducting flights with seven winemakers, although we could have had ten or twelve on our books. However, in the interests of maintaining the highest possible standard of services, we decided not to sign up all our prospects. When we fly our drones, winemakers often come and see how it all works and ask us questions. We are very pleased with the interest shown by the wine industry! I have just compiled the figures (editor’s note: this interview took place on 24 June) and we have already done 500 flights this year, which will rise to about 800 by the end of the season. This is a really fantastic start!

How do you see your equipment evolving in the coming months and years?

We have our own drone and access to another if required. Three pilots have received special training and we have already identified candidates to join this team. To meet demand optimally, the fleet will be extended based on two key priorities. Naturally, we will be expanding the full-service offering currently provided to customers in the wine-growing sector. However, it is also very likely that several winemakers will club together to purchase their own drone that we will operate. This is quite a standard arrangement in this sector, and although we are not necessarily accustomed to working with this type of arrangement, we will adapt!

From the outset, your intention was to expand into other countries. How is that going at the moment?

This use of drones is a very recent development and it will take time for national legislation in the various countries to adapt to the regulatory framework set out by Europe. Germany is about to complete this process and is therefore a logical target for us. Several contacts have already been made and a German winemaker is already interested in working with us. The law is likely to be promulgated next year.

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