Nodes for wine

Wireless monitoring system using sensors to check soil moisture and humidity posts data on the web to help improve grape production. Siobhan Wagner reports.


Wine lovers could notice a vast improvement in next year’s Chianti, thanks to a new precision monitoring technique being used by vineyards in the red wine’s region of Tuscany, which promises to make the entire grape production process more efficient.

Vine-Sense, being commercialised by Italian company Netsens, a spin-off of the EU-funded GoodFood project, is a wireless monitoring system that uses sensors to check soil moisture, air temperature and humidity. The inform- ation is posted on the internet, enabling wine growers from all over the world to access the data, helping them conserve water and reduce pesticide use.

Prof Gianfranco Manes, of the University of Florence and one of the GoodFood co-ordinators, said European growers are gradually moving towards incorporating monitoring systems into their ancient wine growing practices. However, he said, most systems do not transmit information over the internet.

Vine-Sense involves a network of sensors and nodes powered by AA lithium batteries that have an expected lifetime of three years.

Sensors are placed in the ground and at the base of vines. Two sensors, placed at different depths in the ground, determine the soil’s water retention. Others placed on a vine’s stem determine air temperature and humidity.

Manes said an electrical resistance strain gauge attached to the stem measures a plant’s growth. As the stem expands or contracts it causes stresses and changes in the electrical resistance of the gauge.

‘The variation of electrical resistance can be related to the size of the stem,’ he said. ‘The daily variation of the stem is similar to how humans breathe, so the variation gives vital information about the health.’

Every 15 minutes this information is wirelessly transmitted to a node, attached to the plant, where the data is processed, then sent to a solar-powered base station with a GPRS connection to the web.

The station, which has atmospheric sensors and a colour digital photo camera, sends data collected from the nodes, weather data and photos to Netsens’ service centre in real-time.

Netsens’ program collects this data and provides agricultural models of, among other things, water retention levels and risk of fungal infections and pests. The information is claimed to help growers conserve water and reduce pesticide use. Other models illustrating plant development will help determine the right time to harvest the grapes.

Overall, the system gives growers a ‘microclimate’ within their vineyard. ‘This can result in different quality of grapes,’ said Manes. ‘It means there is a need for different treatments throughout the vineyard, and our system will help growers determine the best way to treat their plants.’

Manes claimed the main competitors in the market are in the US. ‘The main advantage we have over them is cost,’ he said. Vine-Sense’s nodes cost £280 each, while rival systems from the US cost from £326 a node.

The other advantage, said Manes, is that Vine-Sense is targeted more at the European market. US systems require a direct communications link to the grower’s home. This is not a problem there, where growers tend to live on or near their farm, but growers in Italy and much of Europe can live far away from their vineyards. Manes said this makes the internet a better choice for accessing the data.

Vine-Sense is operating in several vineyards in Tuscany and also attracting attention beyond Europe. ‘We recently acquired a customer in Egypt,’ said Manes. ‘Water is a a critical issue there and they want to check the status of the condition of soil moisture to decide when to irrigate.’

Vine-Sense will not necessarily help growers increase their crop, said Manes, but it may help them produce better grapes. ‘It’s not a matter of quantity but quality,’ he said.