WSU researchers developing ‘smart irrigation’ for fine wines, water conservation

Researchers at Washington State University are harnessing the power of sensors, big data and automation to help Northwest grape growers produce high quality wine grapes using less water.

Supported by $691,500 from the joint National Science Foundation-U.S. Department of Agriculture Cyber-Physical Systems initiative, Manoj Karkee, associate professor in Biological Systems Engineering, leads the three-year grant project to develop “Smart Irrigation.”

WSU researchers are harnessing big data, sensors and automation to help Washington grape growers.

“In wine grapes, precise irrigation can mean the difference between a decent wine and a great one,” Karkee said.

Too little water means grape berries won’t develop. Too much can negatively affect berry size, sugar content, and volume of the crop, reducing qualities that elevate premium grapes.

WSU Associate Professor Manoj Karkee

“That means growers need to manage water very, very carefully, applying the right amount to produce the right size of berries at the right volume at harvest,” Karkee said.

Farmers rely on visual inspections of their plants, forecasts, their own experience, and, if they want to go high-tech, a variety of sensors to determine when their vines need water.

Working with co-leader Markus Keller, distinguished professor in Viticulture & Enology at WSU, along with Yinghui Wu, assistant professor in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, and Qin Zhang, director of WSU’s Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems, Karkee aims to bring all of that information together in one system.

“Even within the same field block of grapes, soils can vary greatly, which means some plants may be getting too little water and others too much,” said Keller. “By giving growers a precise tool, we can help them conserve water and improve uniformity of grape growth, yield and quality.”

The tool they’ll create could also benefit many other irrigated perennial crops, such as apples, cherries and berries, Keller says.

This month, researchers will launch the project at WSU’s IAREC research vineyard. They’ll deploy sensors, study plants and soil, and collect field data with several central Washington growers.

By the end of year two, they will have turned that data into software for automated irrigation, then put it into practice in test vineyards.

“By the time we’re done, we’ll have a working prototype and new knowledge that we’ll share with growers throughout the state, through talks, demonstrations and Extension publications,” Karkee said.

“Our final product will be a system of sensors, software, big data analytics tools, and hardware that delivers exactly the water that plants need, when and where they need it.”