African countries spend $35 billion in total each year on food imports. Now a Cape Town startup is trying to reduce that expenditure by developing smart drones to help farmers boost their harvests.
With 60% of Africans residing in rural areas and heavily dependent on agriculture, South African drone company Aerobotics is hoping to solve disease and drought-related problems with the use of artificial intelligence. Founded by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, are on a mission to provide bird’s eye surveillance for farmers, with the aim of optimizing crop yields and reducing costs. Aerobotics promises its clients that yields will increase by as much as 10%, as farmers can easily spot diseased crops faster with the aid of artificial intelligence.
“At Aerobotics we are passionate about helping farmers improve their yields and reduce their costs. Over the past 2 years we have worked with hundreds of farmers across South Africa,” Paterson says.
They achieve this by using computers to interpret imagery from satellites, drones and mobile phones and provide predictive information on crop health. The results are presented in Aeroview, the company’s app.”The whole ecosystem feeds into Aeroview, which is centralized and derives insights,” explains Meltzer. The footage from satellites comes in handy in highlighting long-term trends, while drones are flown at specific points during the season to get more detailed information.
Aeroview analyzes the data it receives to highlight poor performing areas for farmers to investigate. It can also diagnose problems caused by disease, pests, and a lack of water or nutrients. Aerobotics now operates in 11 countries, including the United States, Russia and the U.K. With almost 200 clients across the world (about 85% are in South Africa), they’re planning to expand their commercial and software development teams rapidly. Aerobotics is now working to improve its technology so it can promise clients even bigger harvests.
Aerobotics provides on demand satellite and drone analytics to help in planning more efficient farming methods. It can give satellite analytics up to 10m resolution accurately thereby helping farmers cut their monthly water, fertilizer and diesel costs to an extent. It helps in highlighting problem areas on the farm with crop health maps. Some of its products have yielded accurate information on parameters like moisture that has helped optimize water usage and irrigate more precisely. Its products also helps track crop performance across seasons and analyse 2 years of historical data available that is updated weekly when there is low cloud cover.
Aerobotics claims its algorithms turn pictures into data providing meaningful insights to its clients and helps them improve their farming. Several features of its customized products include automatic detection and counting of individual trees, comparing health levels across scans accurately, calculating the varying size and volume of plants and also checking zonal maps for automating precision variable rate application.
The African Development Bank is investing $24 billion over the next 10 years to “jump start the transformation” of farming as part of it’s High 5 plan. Boosting productivity and improving access to modern tools and land management information is vital. While it’s not clear if Aerobotics will be a recipient of Feed Africa funding, it’s certain that they are well placed to provide high quality systems, experience and advice, following the securing of approximately $600,000 (R$8million) in July of 2017 in a joint-funding round from 4Di, an independent venture-capital firm in Cape Town, and the Savannah Fund in Kenya.