Cutting-edge NASA imaging technology has shown promise in detecting the early signs of a plant virus that poses a significant threat to wineries and grape growers, according to recent research. This groundbreaking development not only offers hope to the wine and grape industry, which faces substantial financial losses due to this disease, but it also has the potential to benefit global agriculture as a whole.

Utilizing intricate infrared images collected from aircraft flying over California’s Central Valley, researchers successfully identified Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines infected with the virus, even before visible symptoms emerged. By combining this technology with machine learning and on-site analysis, the research team achieved an impressive accuracy rate of nearly 90%, as indicated in two new research papers.

Lead researcher Katie Gold, an assistant professor of grape pathology at Cornell University, expressed excitement about the project’s groundbreaking nature. “This is the first time we’ve ever shown the ability to do viral disease detection on the airborne scale,” Gold stated, emphasizing that the next step involves scaling this technology for space exploration.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is currently working on sending its airborne imaging instrument, known as AVIRIS-NG (Airborne Visible/InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer), into space. The hope is that routine aerial imagery and data collected by this instrument in space could enable the widespread monitoring of crops, benefiting farmers worldwide.

The potential implications of this venture, if successful on a global scale, extend beyond the grape industry. It could revolutionize disease detection across various crops, promoting a more sustainable and efficient approach to agriculture. Early disease detection would reduce the need for extensive pesticide use, minimize land usage, and benefit both human and environmental health.

However, the realization of this vision is still in the distant future, with extensive research required before the spectrometer heads to space by the end of the decade. The recent study focused on vineyards and the grapevine leafroll virus 3 (GLRaV-3), which is primarily transmitted by mealybugs. Once the disease takes hold, the only remedy is removal, resulting in approximately $3 billion in annual losses for the U.S. wine and grape industry.

Currently, growers rely on labor-intensive vine-by-vine analysis and expensive molecular testing to detect the virus, often too late to prevent significant damage. Advanced technology, as showcased in this study, holds the promise of early detection, potentially saving crops and reducing financial losses.

By identifying infections before symptoms manifest, researchers aim to address a significant challenge in combating the leafroll virus, which has a one-year latent period. This means that by the time visible symptoms appear, the virus has already spread for a year, affecting neighboring vines.

The study involved a collaborative effort between JPL and Cornell University, where researchers conducted a “wine tour” over Lodi vineyards in 2020. The AVIRIS-NG spectrometer, capable of capturing data across various light channels, played a pivotal role in creating detailed maps used for disease detection and research applications.

While this technology is currently focused on the wine and grape industry, its potential to revolutionize agriculture and disease detection on a global scale has far-reaching implications for the future of farming and food security.

By Impact Lab