Aerobotics combines aerial surveys with artificial intelligence to boost agricultural production efficiency.
James Paterson and Benji Meltzer started Aerobotics in 2014 after identifying on-farm challenges that could be solved with aerial imagery and machine learning. The duo needed aerial and satellite imagery to identify crop threats, but there were no suitable drones available at the time that matched their needs. While many would have considered this an obvious setback, the two leveraged their academic backgrounds to build their own.
Both had studied mechatronics engineering at the University of Cape Town. Paterson also completed a Masters in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and Meltzer an MSc in neurotechnology at Imperial College London.
In 2014, remote sensing was in its infancy globally and still a novel concept in South Africa, with only a few farmers in the Western Cape having access to a government satellite technology programme.
“We realised that giving farmers access to software that would allow them to analyse data gathered via drone and satellite imagery would bring significant efficiencies to the farm by helping with the monitoring of plant health and the early identification of problems, which can be caused by anything from waterlogging to drought, pest problems and disease,” says Paterson, who is also a fifth-generation citrus farmer from Clanwilliam.
Paterson and Meltzer decided to combine satellite and drone imagery with machine learning to get more powerful insights into production. Being solely reliant on satellite imagery is not ideal, as it has lower resolution and can only be taken when a satellite is over a farm at the right times, with a cloudy day, for example, rendering the imagery useless.
“In contrast, drones offer more than a hundred times the resolution and control over the timing of use, allowing farmers flexible sessions around their programmes and needs,” Paterson explains.
The start-up, which was self-funded with an investment of R50 000 from each partner, initially focused on drone services and sales, with Stellenbosch University being their first big client.
The two considered the first 18 months quite tough, having to work hard and keep overheads low, while trying to solve the teething problems of serving customers in a new industry. But the business grew quickly, with the drone division being sold in 2018.
Around this time, Aerobotics raised about $2m in a Series A round from Nedbank Venture Capital, US Ag-Tech Venture Capital Fund, AgFunder, US-based AngelList and SA-based 4Di Capital to fund the further development of its software and market expansions. Aerobotics has subsequently gone on to raise growth rounds from Platform Investment Partners and Naspers* Foundry.
Their first software solution was aimed at the monitoring of tree health, which allows farmers to identify specific trees in an orchard that are under stress.
In 2019, as an extension of their tree insight tools, Aerobotics launched a solution that counts fruit in citrus orchards, allowing farmers to get more efficient and accurate yield estimates.
The solution not only allows farmers and exporters to improve their marketing planning, but banks and insurers are in the early stages of using the technology to understand and serve their farming clients better, according to Paterson.
At launch, company awareness and understanding were the primary communication objectives. The team recognised the novelty of the solutions and knew that targeted information would be essential in building the brand.
“We published one advertisement in a traditional farmer magazine, hosted farmer events and made use of a PR agency to raise awareness of the company. Now that people know who we are, the focus has shifted to the meeting of small groups of farmers to better understand their needs and refine our products,” Paterson says.
The leap from developing new products to business management was quite tricky, given this was their first business. The market for agricultural technology has become more competitive since Aerobotics was launched.
Paterson considers this a positive, as competition brings the opportunity for more synergies and awareness of the beneficial impact of digital technologies in the farming sector.
Aerobotics has won several innovation awards since it was launched, including the Macron Africa Most Innovative African Startup Award, being named one of Fast Company’s Top 50 Most Innovative Companies in the World, winning FNB’s Business Innovations Awards in 2019 and recently being selected to become Endeavor members.
The team recognises the power of a global network, saying that breaking into foreign markets was made easier by working with fellow South Africans who connected them with the right people abroad.
Farmers in these countries have proved to be generally receptive to the technology, as it presents them with a way to reduce exorbitant labour costs and other losses, save costs and improve overall farming efficiencies.
Given population growth, climate change and the need for food production to double, they plan to provide the intelligent tools needed to feed the world.
“At the moment most of our solutions are aimed at production management during the harvest seasons, which we would like to expand over the whole year by also incorporating solutions that would notify farmers of the phenological stages of the plant, and the best times to apply certain nutrients,” Paterson says.*finweek is a publication of Media24, a subsidiary of Naspers.