Start-up's eye in sky spots potential harm to the farm

07 April 2019 - 00:01 By PENELOPE MASHEGO

A South African tech start-up is tapping into the crop-protection industry, using drone technology to help farmers zero in on pests and other disease-related problems affecting their crops.
Aerobotics, a company founded by CEO James Paterson and chief technology officer Benjamin Meltzer in 2014, has grown from a home-based business to a company operating in 13 countries, where it offers its drone service to the vine and fruit & nut sectors, estimated to be worth $50bn (R707bn) a year.
Flying 60m to 80m above a field, the drone uses technology similar to facial recognition to identify pests and diseases on vines and trees. It then alerts the farmer.
Paterson and Meltzer started the company at Paterson's childhood home in Stellenbosch. "I'm an aeronautical engineer, so I love drones. I've been building drones for many years," said Paterson, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Initially the commercial drones that we were using [bought from drone manufacturers] were not up to scratch. It was like a toy, so we had to build our own drones, our own cameras and write the software to fly the drones and analyse their photos," he said.
The company no longer builds drones and instead creates software for farmers to use in drones they buy from any manufacturer.
After initially funding the business themselves, the Aerobotics team received funding from 4Di Capital in Cape Town and the Savannah Fund in Kenya, with the next round of funding coming from Nedbank and Paper Plane Advisory and Ventures.
Aerobotics has attracted interest from US farmers.
Aerobotics COO Timothy Willis said: "We've just opened our office in Los Angeles and we have a number of large US contracts in Florida and a couple coming in California. What was really interesting to me is that when I was in Florida I went to the citrus expo and there was no-one there doing what we are doing."
The Cape Town-based company employs 50 people and is active in countries such as Portugal, Spain, Australia, Chile, Peru, Argentina and Mexico, among others.
Willis said the company raised about R60m in its last round of funding last year.
John Hudson, national head of agriculture at Nedbank, said the advantage of drone technology in pest and disease control is that farmers can react quickly and save their crops. "The precision farming approach, as it applies to the tree crops in particular, is what Aerobotics is really changing, in terms of qualitative information that is provided to a farmer, which allows him to better manage his business," said Hudson.
"I think that because of the technology and the value add from Aerobotics, it just equips the farmer so much better in dealing with the challenges of farming."
He said Nedbank had a "meaningful" stake in Aerobotics but declined to disclose what the stake was.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.