FOOD TECH: Grape growers are looking to get a lift from drone technology

In this Oct. 15, 2014 photo, UC Davis engineer Ryan Billing flies a Yamaha RMax helicopter over the Oakville Station test vineyard to demonstrate the use of the drone applying fertilizers and pesticides to vineyards t the University of California, Davis' Oakville Station test vineyard in Oakville, Calif. (AP Photo/The Press Democrat, John Burgess)

Hot air balloons drifting in multicolored splashes against a blue heaven are a common sight in the Napa Valley. But lately, more than balloons have been taking to the wine country skies.

A few pioneers are experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, exploring their potential for such agricultural chores as monitoring, irrigation and crop spraying.

Drones make sense for wine country, especially on the steep slopes associated with high-end wines, says Steve Markofski, spokesman for Yamaha Motor Corp. USA, which has been testing its RMAX remote-controlled helicopter for spray applications with the University of California, Davis.

Tractors may be defeated by the narrow rows and hilly terrain, but a drone can skim over the rows no problem. They also don’t tamp down on the earth like tractor tires, a problem that can starve roots of oxygen among other things.

Once strictly a military machine, drones have been slowly moving into civilian life. Civil rights groups have raised concerns over possible invasions of privacy, especially in the context of law enforcement use, but the Napa Valley test flights, limited to private property, didn’t encounter opposition.

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