Using drone technology and data analytics among other technologies, SA start-up Aerobotics is helping farmers manage disease and pest control at the touch of a button.
 'Farming from your stoep' at the touch of a button

Speaking to Fin24 on the sidelines at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Summit in Cape Town on Thursday, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at Aerobotics, Benji Meltzer, shared how the start-up is helping farmers grow healthier crops using technology provided through AWS.

He and CEO James Paterson met as engineering students at UCT. Paterson grew up on a farm in Clanwilliam, his thesis was on drones, and he studied aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  

"So that’s where the drone and the farming side of things came from," says Meltzer.

Meltzer brought his interest in big data and machine learning, completing a masters in machine learning at the London Imperial College.

"Basically the two of us got together and thought there was an opportunity to start a business here," he says. "Using our skills set we came up with this idea of using aerial imagery to help farmers. Cape Town seemed like the right place to do it and we were keen to come home."

They started Aerobotics four years ago.

How it works

Aerobotics provides a pest and disease management solution for farmers by collecting data using satellites and drone imagery. Farmers can fly a drone using an app.

"It just means you can fly at a tap of a button," says Meltzer.

Thereafter the imagery is uploaded onto servers, whereby analysis is done on the imagery to detect pest and disease. Aerobotics has built another app, known as the Aeroview Scout. Using this app, the farmer can detect the location of the trees affected on the field and address the problem.

"At the moment we show the farmer where the problem is, but we don’t diagnose it," Meltzer clarifies. Meltzer explains that through machine learning, with the feedback provided by farmers, they hope to use the data collected over time for diagnostic purposes.

Eventually farmers should be able to do their farming from one place, using data as opposed to having to go out into the fields.

"In SA we call it ‘farming from your stoep’. The whole idea is you can sit in your office and use the data.

"The whole goal is to give the farmer the data that matters and enough information to do something about it," he says.

A drone in flight, using the flight planner app. (Picture: Supplied).

Delivering an address to the summit, Paterson explains that tracking is conducted on a "tree-by-tree" basis. Detecting problematic trees manually by walking among the trees could be a full day’s work, but this technology can reduce the time to 20 minutes, he says.

This adds value for farmers. Instead of detecting a tree at a stage when it is too late, forcing farmers to wait five to six years for a new tree to come into production – Paterson said that early detection would ensure farmers get back into production within the next year.

Paterson added that Aerobotics hopes to reach 40 million trees by the end of the year, and possibly start zoning in on leaf analysis to detect insect damage by getting drones closer to the trees.

Farmer using Aerobotics flight planner. (Picture: Supplied)

Meltzer further explains to Fin24 that there is an educational and training aspect to using the app and drones. Farmers could use service providers to fly the drones for them too, he says. 

He adds that farmers like to interact with a person. Aerobotics would like to go onto farms more and more to get a better understanding of the challenges farmers face to better tailor their solutions.

He also says it’s important to establish trust with farmers.

Farming for the future

Aerobotics is focusing on trees as opposed to providing solutions for other crops, Meltzer explains. They will also focus on developing solutions for the value chain in the industry, for example crop insurance and commodity trading.

Asked if their solution for farming efficiently will come at the expense of jobs, Meltzer says that it is something they discuss a lot. "I don’t think so… We are not replacing people. We are building tools to allow people to be more efficient and to farm more proactively," he says.

Instead of having someone scout fields with a pen and paper, they can use the app to do the scouting. "There’s also an opportunity to empower people to fly drones," he says.

Meltzer is optimistic about the future of farming in South Africa. "Agriculture is a big part of GDP already, and we are just touching the surface."

As a parting shot Meltzer, saysit is important for people to realise there is "real innovation" happening in South Africa, and that it would be much better for the economy if people made a difference by starting their own businesses.



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