South African Startup Uses AI to Help Farmers

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South African startup, Aerobotics, recently announced that they successfully closed its Series A funding round with a raise of approximately $2 million. The data analytics company uses aerial imagery and machine learning algorithms to optimise crop performance for farmers around the world through its cloud-based web application, Aeroview. In 2017 the company introduced Aeroview Scout, a mobile app that gives farmers a bird’s eye view of their orchards.

The uses artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms to transform satellite and drone imagery into useful information to help farmers identify problem areas in the orchard. Co-founded by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, the startup currently has clients in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

In January 2018, Aerobotics was announced as one of 24 startups across the globe chosen to join Google’s Launchpad Accelerator in San Francisco. Aerobotics was one of three African startups chosen.

IT News Africa interviewed James Paterson, Co-founder and CEO of Aerobotics. Paterson holds a BSc in Mechatronics Engineering from UCT. He went on to study a Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. During his time at MIT, he worked on projects including gimballed rocket control, an optical flow localisation system and autonomous collision avoidance and path planning algorithms for unmanned aerial vehicles.

How does Aerobotics help farmers gain insights into their farms?
Farming is a risky business with pests and disease often reducing a Farmer’s yield. Aerobotics’ software, Aeroview, empowers Tree Crop Farmers by identifying early stage problems in their orchards using a combination of satellite and drone data. Used in conjunction with the Aerobotics’ Aeroview Scout App on their mobile phone, Farmers are able to locate problem areas with tree-by-tree accuracy.

How has being part of Google’s Launchpad Accelerator in San Francisco impacted the organisation?

The Google Launchpad Accelerator has had three main impacts on the business. Firstly, it has helped the Leadership Team become more organised in achieving the business vision. Second, it has given the business a lot of credibility with large organisations who we are currently in commercial discussions with about rolling out our product to thousands of Farmers. Finally, our Data Science Team has benefitted from working with world-class specialists in the field.

How can farmers benefit from using the Aerobotics Aeroview Scout and how does the platform work?

Once Farmers have reviewed satellite and drone data insights on the Aerobotics’ Aeroview web-portal, it is time to plan a scouting mission. Farmers need to spend time investigating the problems which have been identified on Aeroview. The Aeroview Scout App could be considered the Google Maps for a Farmer’s orchards. The App takes the Farmer to points which they have identified for inspection in their field. On arrival at a selected tree, the Farmer is able to take notes (written and by recording a voice note), record the disease or pest causing the problem and take a picture of the problem. The App works offline. When returning to their office, the App syncs the scouting mission insights back to the Aeroview web-portal to ensure the farm management loop is closed.

What are some of the challenges that the company has encountered?

As a startup, we face many challenges on a daily basis. Some of the biggest ones include hiring the best talent available to fuel our exponential growth, working with current and potential investors to fund the business and staying focussed given the huge number of opportunities which our technology enables.

How has the reception been like from the farmers?

Farmers who use our system to manage the risks arising from pests and disease absolutely love the simple but timely insights. We provide world-class per-tree analytics and Farming professionals can see the value which we can add to the process.