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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK
Wi-fi sensor net aids wine makers
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

A Californian vineyard is turning to wi-fi technology to help it grow better grapes.

The Pickberry vineyard, Accenture
The sensors monitor key climatic conditions
Pickberry in Sonoma County is using a wireless net to gather data from sensors in its fields that monitor key conditions such as temperature, humidity and soil moisture.

The sensor net means the grape growers know much more about the health of their vines and can apply water or chemicals only when the plants really need them.

It is also helping the viticulturists work out why all the rules of thumb they have learned through years of grape-growing produce good quality crops.

Wine and wisdom

Bill Westerman, an associate partner at hi-tech consultancy Accenture working on the project, said wireless was a natural choice for the grape growers.

We are able to get data from 30 acres back to home base without having to run cables
Bill Westerman, Accenture
"It's prohibitive to run cables through the growing fields," he told BBC News Online.

Each of the sensors placed around the Pickberry vineyard has onboard monitors for several conditions known to be key influences on grapevine health.

Grapes that produce good wine cost a premium so getting the right conditions for good growth can mean the difference between profit and loss for small vineyards.

When a sensor post has gathered data, it travels back to a central server by hopping from one wi-fi access point to another.

"We are able to get data from 30 acres back to home base without having to run cables and without having to have radio transmitters that are powerful enough to make the leap from one end of the field to the other," said Mr Westerman.

Alert system

During the first few weeks of the trial some of the battery-powered sensor points had to be repaired after rodents in the fields chewed cables on soil moisture monitors.

Sensor in vineyard, Accenture
Sensors are dotted throughout the vineyard
Mr Westerman said the Pickberry vineyard was spread over a hill and growing conditions were very different at the top and bottom of the slope.

Data being gathered was helping the Pickberry grape growers find out how vines fared in different parts of the vineyard.

"They can go in and better understand how the water is retained and how much they need to water it," he said.

The data gathering and analysis also meant that chemicals applied to control mildew could be applied only when needed rather than every 10 days or so now.

The analysis engine has a series of alerts built in that tells the growers when particular levels of indicators, such as soil moisture or temperature, are reached.

So far, said Mr Westerman, these alerts were just being used to prompt the wine growers into action rather than let the system decided for itself what action to take.

"We are just a third of way into the growing cycle after installing this, so they are very much using the traditional approaches they had before," he said.

But, he said, the data gathering was helping them work out why what they did worked so well.

"They are using this data in part to verify what they did before and to get details they never had before," he said.

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