Fighting pests with drones, SA startup revolutionises farming

JOHANNESBURG — Cape-based startup Aerobotics is seriously making headway in improving the way farmers farm. The company specialises in using drone and software technology to help farmers identify possible problem pests and diseases on their crops. The company does this by using incredible image capturing technology that can go down to individual tree-level and even further. The service has already taken off in South Africa with drones surveying around 100,000 hectares. James Paterson, the CEO and founder of Aerobotics, tells me more about his fascinating company in this podcast. – Gareth van Zyl

James Paterson is the CEO of Cape-based drone company Aerobotics and he joins me now on the podcast. James, the first time I heard about your company was at Amazon’s AWS Summit in Cape Town earlier this year. It’s really fascinating what you’re doing. Can you tell the listeners more?

Yes, thanks Gareth. It’s good to be here. So at Aerobotics we focus on farmers, helping them detect problems early on their farms. This involves mostly detecting pests and diseases at an early stage. We do this by using machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse drone and satellite imagery, and then extract information from that and sent alerts to the farmer of when they’ve got an issue.

To me, it also looks like you’re offering drones as a service so to speak. Can you explain how your packages work because I see that you’ve got three price points and your analyses for farmers goes down to individual tree level even? Some farmers don’t even need to own a drone – they can just use your drones, right?

Yes, exactly. So, what we do is we take this drone and satellite imagery and we track it back down. So, that’s important because we’re taking photos and we’re turning each tree into a data point that we can then track over time: we can see how the tree is growing, the health of that tree, and compare it to other trees in the orchard or the industry. For that full package we do provide a seasonal service, so the farmer can just sign up and pay a ‘per hectare per month’ subscription. The pilot will show up three-times during the season to do a full drone flight. Apart from that, they get a weekly satellite health update of how their orchards are doing, and then that aerial data links through to an app which guides them to the location of the problems in the field. That is basically the full package.

Aerobotics platform for farmers.

Then we’ve got, as I mentioned, the option for the seasonal service. However, if the farmer owns their own drone we’ve got a ‘fly your own’ package, where we just do the analysis for the farmer – we then just handle the software side of things. Finally, we’ve got a free version of the platform, which provides the farmer with satellite health updates on a weekly basis. That links through to the scouting application. In essence, we want to provide some sort of platform where the farmers can get started for free, and even that is a really great product. But we’re trying to get farmers onto this new technology and getting them to use it. So, we don’t want the price point to be an issue there.

What has the take-up been like? How many farmers have signed up to the service and where are these farmers based?

Yes, so we’ve got around 100 000 hectares on the platform at the moment. If you’re not a farmer, that’s about 100 000 soccer fields worth of land so, it’s quite a bit already. About 85% of that is in SA. It’s spread out through the country and then the rest is spread between the US and another ten countries around the world. And we’ve just had a big launch event  where we did 11 simultaneous launches around SA, in each one of our areas. So, it was quite fun.

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Can you tell us more about those launches?

Yes, so basically we had the main event based in Franschhoek and then we spread our team, three people in each event, around the country, and a live stream went out from Franschhoek. But then, locally, people ran the event as well with virtual reality experiences and a presentation from that side as well. What we launched was the ‘drone scouting technology,’ which gives us imagery at a sub-millimetre resolution. Which means, we can not just extract how the tree is performing but we can take the analysis to a leaf and fruit level, and look for pest damage, count flowers and count fruit for a better yield estimate. A lot is possible with his high-resolution image.

That’s pretty incredible so, have you designed a lot of that technology on your own? Is it your own intellectual property?

Yes, so that’s a good question. When we started four years ago, we built the full package – so we used to build the drones, and the camera systems all by ourselves. But now we’ve switched to using off-the-shelf-hardware. We use mostly DJI Drones and we write the full software. So, we write the software application that flies the drone automatically. It uses obstacle avoidance to get in close to the tree to take the photos. Then the most important part is the analysis and the special intelligence to analyse these photos and extract information for farmers. So we no longer do hardware but we write the software all around that to fly the drone and then analyse the imagery.

James Paterson, CEO of Aerobotics.
James Paterson, CEO of Aerobotics.

So, to cover about 100,000 hectares you must have a lot of drones out there?

Yes, there are a lot of drones out there. It’s not us ourselves that do the flights. We’re the technology company and we’ve set up a mini Uber around SA, where we link in with drone partners. So, these are other drone companies that will actually do the flying for the farmer and we handle the relationship with the farmer and then the analysis of the drone projects for them.

As I mentioned earlier, I first heard of your business at the Amazon AWS Summit in Cape Town earlier this year. So, how are you using technologies like AWS to deliver your offering?

Well, our offering is a cloud-based solution. Let’s take the example where the farmer owns their own drone: our software will fly the drone across the orchards, take all the imagery automatically, and land it. When that imagery is then uploaded to the cloud, that then goes straight to AWS, to Amazon’s storage. We then run all our software on Amazon’s cloud computing platform as well. So, when we get a lot of these big jobs in or get a lot of data to process, and we’ll run over 100 Amazon instances at the same time. Basically, 100 computers will be running and processing this data. Then obviously, we serve that data. So, once we’ve processed it, we have to present it back to the client in a web-based platform, and we use the cloud to process that back to the clients as well.

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What is your background and what motivated you to get into this particular line of business?

My parents are farmers, from Clanwilliam/Citrusdal area – they farm oranges there. I grew up on the farm and got to know the risks and the problems on the farm growing up. But then I went on to study aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. I’m an engineer and I loved drones and anything that flies, basically. So, this really combines those two things. A love for farming and then also, this new technology and what’s possible. 

Finally, where do you see your business headed in the next five to ten years?

Well, with this new technology now, where we’re getting sub-millimetre imagery, it is really exciting for us. We can start extracting more and more from the images. Basically, we can extract anything that a human expert can pick up if they’re standing close to the plant and if they’re having a look at the plant. It will take a while to develop but I see automated problem detection for the farmer, so including a ground station for the drone that takes it off once a day, automatically. It detects pests and disease and then it counts the fruit, counts the yield and it alerts the farmer of any issues. I see it becoming more and more autonomous where the farmer doesn’t even have to go out there and put the drone down. They just get a dashboard of information and the drones are going out to collect the required information automatically.

James Paterson, it’s been fascinating chatting to you today. Thank you so much for telling us more about Aerobotics.

Great, yes, it’s been good to be on the show.