1 August 2017

South African Precision Farming Data and Drones Start-Up Aerobotics Will Use Recent Investment to Scale Up

Until recently, the public profile of drones in Africa has largely been NGO-focused drone delivery. However below the surface drones are making inroads in areas as diverse as archaeology and oil. This week Russell Southwood talks to Aerobitics COO Andrew Burdock about its plans for drones and data analytics in the agricultural sector.

Aerobotics founders James Paterson and Benji Meltzer went to the same university but did their Masters separately, one choosing drones and the other data analytics. Both came back to South Africa and were searching to find a business idea. They found it in the agricultural sector and Aerobotics bought their two specializations together. They launched the company in 2014.

As part of the precision farming movement, it aims to improve the cost effectiveness of farming through providing the data to track crop health, growth and moisture levels down to individual plants, and to enable farmers to action this data through variable-rate fertilizer maps and yield estimates:"When we started, there were no low cost drones or sensors so we had to build them plus we needed to build the software."

Essentially farmers get two options, one that is cheaper but less detailed and the other that is more expensive but has a finer grain detail in data terms. The first option uses satellite mapping to provide low-resolution crop health maps, which allow farmers to concentrate on broader problem areas. It uses certain light spectra (near infra red) that can identify chlorophyll levels. It also provides moisture updates that help with reducing water use:"There's currently a drought in South Africa and this feature is very important."

The second more expensive option involves getting a drone flight over your farm (which you can either arrange yourself or do through Aerobotics) to do a more high resolution mapping job:"A hundred images are stitched together into a geo-map and it provides data (on things like stress levels)."

Better still, the data can be tracked over time:"The frequency (with which data is collected) depends on the crop. For citrus, it's once every two months but you can work with updated low-resolution data."

So how are the farmers reacting to it?:"It's very much a new thing and farmers are learning about it... It's changing the way they behave. Some guys have been doing the same stuff for over 40 years. It's tough getting them to change but younger farmers are very much looking at this new technology." By continental standards, South African farming is fairly advanced. In Cape Town, the main crops are citrus (mainly oranges) sugar cane, macadamia nuts and avocados.

It uses High Phantom drones from DJI, the world's biggest and probably cheapest manufacturer and these drones carry a rather more expensive multi-spectral camera. The drone may cost US$1500-2000 but the specialist camera is US$4000.

The business model is to sign up farmers at US$50 per month for the satellite data and then upsell them to the more expensive drone-based service. If you fly your own drone, it will cost you US$2 per hectare to upload the data. If Aerobotics organizes the drone flight, it will cost US$7 per hectare.

There are already agricultural drone specialists and in the UK it has partnered with Drone AG. Aerobotic's ambition is to be the analytical back end that can handle the data.

The service is available anywhere globally and it has users in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Malawi, Zimbabwe (tobacco) and Mozambique (sugar cane):"Every country is really different."

And what about competitors?:"The main ones are out of the USA and Israel but it's a big industry with many different crops. We can choose to focus on trees, for example, whereas others might focus on other things. There's no-one else doing this in Africa. Our long-term ambitions are global but first Africa". There's also companies like Drone Deploy who do drone mapping but use Aerobotics for the back-end.

"The data we're collecting will be of interest to other players involved including insurance companies, banks and fertilizer suppliers. We have permission to aggregate the (customer) data as part of our terms and conditions. There's a lot more stuff to come on this. We're really helping improve food products."

It recently attracted US$602,000 from 4Di and Savannah:"The funding is to continue building the platform with more analytics. It's also to build out a sales and marketing function. The sales guy is in place and we've already started marketing."

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