‘The Future of Farming’ – Why Aerobotics is One of SA’s Most Exciting Tech Startups Right Now

Aerobotics drones
Aerobotics Team Google Launchpad 1000 x 750

The Aerobotics team at the Google campus in San Francisco.

SME South Africa celebrates Game changers/Disruptors this March. Follow along as we explore ideas and people that are challenging the status quo. 

Aerobotics is a Cape Town-based aerial data-analytics company that is changing how farmers manage their crops, and in turn, the future of farming.

Co-founded by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, the startup provides farmers with a bird’s eye view of their orchards, with the aim of optimising crop yields and reducing costs.

They have built an aerial data analytics platform — which applies machine learning to multi-spectral images to provide insight and competitive advantage to farmers, including predictive information on crop health.

“There is a massive amount of data which can be used to help optimise the agricultural industry. Technology is helping develop platforms to capture this data effectively (using ground-based sensors and mobile applications), analyse this data helping identify issues and become more predictive (using cloud computing and machine learning) and finally helping action the data (through technology such as variable rate fertilization systems),” Meltzer says.

Aerobotics has built a client list of farmers and agricultural consultants in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the UK, and also according to Disrupt Africa “large agricultural, finance and insurance companies around the world”.

Paterson is from a farming family in the Western Cape, and according to Meltzer understands the challenges that farmers face. He earned his masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering at US-based technology university MIT with a focus on flight planning applications for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as drones.

We are using cutting edge technology to help farmers make data-driven decisions

Meltzer says he has always had a keen interest in data science and analytics and finding ways to use this cutting edge technology to solve real-world problems. He completed his MSc in Neurotechnology at Imperial College in London, before returning to South Africa and working as an analytics manager at ridesharing company Uber South Africa, focussing on supply growth and efficiency in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Taking flight

Last year the founders secured a joint R8 million seed-funding round from South African venture capital company 4Di Capital and Kenya’s Savannah Fund.

Meltzer says the investment will go towards bringing in top talent and experienced hires in growing both their development and commercial teams, which currently consists of 11 employees. They have also invested in marketing and advertising, helping them bring their product to market.

Farming Picture Aerobotics 1000 x 750

Besides securing funding, Aerobotics was announced as one of 24 startups across the globe chosen to join Google’s Launchpad Accelerator in San Francisco, which kicked off at the end of January 2018. Aerobotics is the only South African startup chosen for the Launchpad and is one of three African startups.

Technology is changing how farming is done? Here are 5 quotes from Meltzer on how they are achieving this by focussing on helping the farmer.

1. They help farmers better manage what is a risky business

“Farming is a risky business, where there is potential to suffer huge losses during production. We are helping farmers gain insights into their crop performance, and as a result identify problems early to mitigate risk and increase yield.”

2. Applying tech to a traditional industry

“Farming is quite a traditional industry, where decisions are generally made through knowledge built up from experience and insights from the ground. We are using cutting edge technology to help farmers make data-driven decisions, allowing time to be spent on what matters most. Our platform is one of the first that integrates aerial imagery from drones and satellites (giving us the benefit of scale) and ground imagery from the field. Further, we are focussed on developing deep insights for farmers, ensuring that the data is actionable.”

3. The farmer is the focus

“We have always built our product with the end-user (being the farmer) top of mind. We have spent a lot of time on the ground with farmers, ensuring that our products align with their needs and can be used on the ground.”

4. Looking to scale

“We are now focussing on moving into new territories and further developing the technology to offer more value to farmers. Further, we are looking at signing corporate deals helping scale the business further.”

5. Global exposure

“I think that this [being chosen for the Google Launchpad] shows that SA startups are competing on a global scale. Both from a technology and business standpoint, we are alongside some of the fastest growing companies in emerging markets around the world.”

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Michelle Strydom
Michelle Strydom
I'm a journalist for online publication, SME South Africa. I'm a BA journalism graduate from the University of Johannesburg. My areas of focus when it comes to writing are entrepreneurs, startups, marketing and funding. I also enjoy creative writing and proofreading.