Coeur de Terre Vineyard's drone flies a programmed route to scare away birds. Rusty Rae/News-Register
Harvest time in Yamhill's wine country is the best time of year.
Sun-drenched days are filled with energy from harvesters and visions of raw fruit turning to an elixir of life.
But its also a time when the birds of the community can wreak havoc on a harvest -- especially a late harvest like this season.
At Coeur de Terre Vineyard, the last gathering of grapes didn't take place until mid-October, giving Winemaker Scott Neal's feathered friends additional time to rob the vineyard.
Neal, like others, has turned to propane cannons to scare the birds away. At times, it sounds like you've visited a gun range rather than a vineyard -- much to the chagrin of visitors and neighbors alike.
Neal, however, went Star Wars this season in his attempt to keep the pesky birds away from his grapes.
Using a DJi Mavic Pro drone mounted with a portable speaker that plays the screech of a predator hawk from a SD card, he's programmed his bird to fly the vineyard, broadcasting the tell-tale shriek of the Red Tail hawk.
"It depends on the year, but the birds can really decimate a harvest. In 2010 we lost somewhere in the vicinity of 15% of our grapes to birds," Neal said.
There's no silver bullet for the protection of grapes, with perhaps the best solution being protecting the grapes with netting. However, Neal explains there other issues with using netting, "The economics of netting make it problematic -- at least for us. There is not only the cost of the netting itself and its maintenance, but there is also the overhead of putting it on and taking it off."
Using Google maps in satellite view, Neal programs way points for the drone to fly the vineyard. He's able to program it to fly at various altitudes and patterns around his property and when the drone swoops in, you see the bird, mostly Starlings, fly off.
Of course they come back, so its an ongoing challenge for Neal and his drone. He's already thinking about next year and believes he'll add a second aircraft to his fleet.
"The drones are good for about 20 minutes of flying time and then they return to what is programmed as their home base," he noted.
However, Neal sees a future where the drone just doesn't come back to a home base, but like the Roomba vacuum, returns to a charging station. That would allow him to program the drones to fly through his vineyard every 20 or 30 minutes, keeping the birds at bay.
Neal, above left and right, watches his drone circle the vineyard with his I-pad controller in hand. The drone's sole job is to protect the vineyard (above) from birds, until it is time for harvest. Below, the landed drone after one of its flights. Rusty Rae/News-Register