Set to soar

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Tim Willis, COO of Aerobotics
Tim Willis, COO of Aerobotics

Having grown up on a citrus farm, James Paterson is well versed in the challenges tree-crop farmers face. But when he met Benji Meltzer on a mechatronics course at UCT, the spark for a new business was ignited.

Post-graduation, Paterson went to MIT in Boston to complete his Master’s in astro-aeronautics, while Meltzer completed his Master’s in data science at Imperial College London.

Upon their return to SA, the pair wanted to do something together that could utilise both of their areas of expertise and potentially help the Paterson family farm and others like it.

“That’s how the idea started,” says Tim Willis, COO of Aerobotics. “It was initially to find something that works, build it and get feedback from farmers.”

That was five years ago; today, the concept has evolved significantly from its testbed origins. Now a successful ariel data analytics company, Aerobotics has clients in 18 countries around the world and employs 85 people. Paterson, the company CEO, is based at the company’s commercial head offices in Los Angeles, just south of the Central Valley, the largest citrus growing area in the world. Meltzer, the company’s CTO, and Willis are based in Cape Town, heading up the company’s technology and operations. In the past couple of years, the company has received major investments from Nedbank and Paper Plane Venutres, backed by Richard Came, one of the cofounders of Dimension Data and Vumatel.

“Tree crop farmers yield a lot higher income per hectare, so they have a bigger budget for things like technology.”

Stra-tree-gic niche

The focus on tree crops has been a strategically successful niche, says Willis. “Of the world’s harvested hectares, 90% are field crops, so, generally, people wanting to start an agritech business will look at the 90%. What they often don’t realise is that tree crop farmers yield a lot higher income per hectare, so they have a bigger budget for things like technology. These guys are concerned with ensuring that their assets – the trees – are well maintained and nourished, whereas row crops are ripped out and replanted every year.”

Aerobotics’ typical customer currently is a medium-sized commercial farmer with a farm size of 200 to 1 000 hectares. The company’s product focus is on orchard monitoring – mapping individual trees, their health and assisting with yield estimation.

The main product model, says Willis, is to fly a drone over a farm and capture imagery, which is then stitched together to create a map. “We’re not just counting trees, we’re also looking at the contours and the vegetation index. Our systems use six layers of light, and by combining all those layers, you can get different health metrics, determining how healthy each tree is.”

Data is sent to the farmer highlighting stressed or unhealthy trees, along with the coordinates, so they can be attended to. But the system doesn’t rely solely on drone surveillance.

“The infield scouting application can be used on a mobile device, which can be offline when it’s deep in the farmlands. A user can plan a ‘scout route’ or just walk into the field, identify problem trees, and then it all gets stitched together. With scouts out in the field capturing this information, the farm manager can sit at their computer and analyse everything that’s happening remotely,” he says.

Beyond the health-tracking abilities, there’s a yield estimation product, which uses tree data and, by sampling different trees and counting the fruit on them, gives the farmer an analysis of what the current state is, and a prediction of what the harvest is expected to yield.

This gives farmers the data to take immediate action, where necessary. “We’re providing something like 20 times more data points, and 15 times faster than the farmer had before,” Willis says.

Future plans

Tree crops tend to grow in more tropical climates, Willis adds, so the company will continue to target countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Turkey, along with Peru and Australia, as well as further entrenching into the US.

When it comes to product evolution, he says: “Over time, we see ourselves selling more and more product to these growers, so instead of just an orchard mapping package, we’re now selling orchard mapping and yield estimation, and in future that plus something else. We’re looking at what value we can deliver to a farmer for every hectare on the farm.”

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This article was originally published in the February 2020 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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