How NASA technology could save California vineyards by stopping a grape virus before symptoms appear

Vines need a lot of things to go right to grow grapes. They need the same time, the right soil mixture, ideal watering and avoiding diseases.

Grapes are susceptible to a number of diseases, including leaf spot virus, which can devastate vines. The virus can hide latently in the vine for up to a year, giving it 365 days to infect neighboring plants before showing signs of distress.

To combat this disease and improve the health of vines, NASA has developed technology that can spot the virus in its early stages, giving growers time to deal with and eliminate the threat. NASA’s research and imaging work focused on grapevine leafroll virus 3 (GLRaV-3), a globally distributed virus that can disrupt grapevines.

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The breakthrough discovery of leaf spot virus is welcome news for the wine industry, which suffers huge losses every year due to the crop-destroying disease.

The NASA-led technology uses infrared spectral images collected from aircraft flying over California’s iconic Central Valley. This includes a spectrometer called the Airborne Visible/InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS-NG) developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). A research team surveyed approximately 11,000 acres near Lodi, California, using the spectrometer to capture data from hundreds of different channels of light. The different channels produce actionable data about the plant’s species and health status, including the presence of leaf disease.

The technology produced images that the researchers used to distinguish infected Cabernet Sauvignon vines before visible symptoms appeared. This data gives growers a decisive edge in disease management. The research team combined the images with machine learning and in-situ analysis, resulting in an accuracy rate of nearly 90% in identifying infected plants.

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The scale and efficiency of the technology contrasts with the previous laboratory way of testing for the virus, which required analyzing individual vines using expensive molecular tests. The time spent conducting these tests on any meaningful scale often meant that the results came too late and did not prevent vineyard owners from taking meaningful action beyond vine removal.

Katie Gold, assistant professor of grape pathology at Cornell University and lead researcher on the project, noted the project’s transformative significance.

“This is the first time we’ve shown the ability to do airborne viral disease detection. The next step is scaling into space,” she said.

As NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sends its aerial imaging instrument AVIRIS-NG into space, the research team hopes that data derived from aerial images and the launched vehicle can effectively monitor crops around the world. The technology has the potential to benefit global agriculture by improving yields, reducing pesticide use, and improving land use and quality. Resource managers could use the technology with agricultural companies and farmers to better plan crop plantings and rotations to optimize yields and reduce resource use.

Another innovation in the wine industry comes from Splash Wines, a direct-to-consumer e-commerce wine company that prides itself on excellent customer service and fast delivery of quality vintages at affordable prices.

The foliar virus is transmitted through the vines by the mealybug. When the virus infects the plants, removing them is the only solution. The impact of the virus is causing more than $3 billion in annual losses to the wine and grape industry.

Gold notes to expand the research project on a massive scale will require satellites due to the cost and feasibility of a huge number of aircraft flights. The space would allow researchers to monitor production at a regional community scale, as vineyards are a distinctly regional agricultural activity and effectiveness would require monitoring entire areas, not just individual vineyards.

The study focused on red grapes, but the researchers are optimistic that the results and methodologies can be extended to white grapes affected by leaf spot virus. The NASA-led technology marks the promise of remote sensing in plant pathology, where various stakeholders work together to stop plant diseases before they become an uncontrollable problem.

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