BORDEAUX — Jeanne Lacombe, who runs four vineyards owned by wine magnate Bernard Magrez in France’s Médoc region, is used to waiting: for the grapes to ripen, for wines to age — and now, for her drone.
It is due this month, and will come equipped with three carbon fiber feet, six propellers and a sensory camcorder hanging in the middle.
The first tests took place in the wine magnate’s vineyards in the south of France — he has almost 40 around the world. Magrez decided to buy the small aircraft — “50,000 euros, the price of a tractor,” Lacombe says, putting things into perspective — and train two of his employees, including this technical manager, who earned herself a microlight certificate.
Magrez isn’t the first to use a drone in a vineyard — the Château Lafon-Rochet in Saint-Estèphe has been using one since last spring — but he is the first to own one in Europe. Until now, these pilotless aircrafts were solely used for visual communication between the châteaux.
Creating a network
Why use a technology like this when there already are observations by satellites and helicopters, or sensors placed on tractors? “Drones are more precise, they don’t damage the vines like tractors do, and they have more flexibility — they can be used anytime, unlike satellites,’ explains the manager of the Médoc vineyards. “In the end, this will help us cultivate our vineyards even more carefully because we will have a more precise knowledge, plot by plot.”
Lacombe says the vineyards will be more accurate in combating pests and vine diseases, as well as defining the ripeness of the grapes, which is all central to the final quality of the wines.
In the nearby region of Aquitaine there is an entire industry being built around drones. Even in 2010, in the early days of drones, a “cluster” called Aetos was launched thanks to the regional council of Aquitaine and aircraft manufacturer Thales.
Trang Pham, regional development manager for Thales and head of Aetos, has spent the past three years creating “a network of companies, research laboratories and universities across the entire southwest of France, to strengthen this sector and develop new markets.”
The region, especially around Bordeaux, has many assets: an industrial fabric specializing in military and civilian aircrafts (with companies like Thales, Dassault, Safran and EADS/Airbus), academic courses to give specific training, “dronists” (drone manufacturers) and several flight testing camps.
They are still marginal, but these small flying objects may soon become central to many different industries. “For all the monotonous, dangerous and inaccessible operations in high-risk environments, drones have a future,” says David Carcenat, the sales manager of Fly-n-Sense, a drone manufacturer founded in 2010 and based just across the road from Mérignac airport in Bordeaux.
Aetos sponsors several projects that have important economic potential for the region. “Vitidrones,” for instance, supported by the rival cluster Inno’vin, has been working for the past year on an automatic aircraft that will allow the remote sensing of the vines’ strength. Trials and marketing are set to take place this year.
“In a few years, if the sensors exist, we will work on the waterways and the parasitic diseases of the vines,” explains head of Inno’vin, Gilles Brianceau.
What about wildfires and pollution?
In the Landes region, firemen use a drone — soon they will have a second one — to estimate the size of wildfires in real time. Drone manufacturer Fly-n-Sense is working with a highway company on a prototype that will be able to quickly determine the extent of resulting traffic jams after accidents.
A Swiss company has asked them to work on an aircraft capable of measuring air pollution. It is also studying a building renovation program: the drone has a scanner that sweeps remnants of a building and, coupled with a renovation software program, the original building appears.
“Drones are a real support tool,” Trang Pham says. “Now, 2014 will be the year of the commercial achievement of various different trials.” And the Aquitaine region will certainly be able to toast to that.