Improving agriculture through Aerobotics

South Africa’s agricultural lands have always been one of the backbones of the economy. According to South, the agricultural sector is roughly responsible for 8.5 million jobs both directly and indirectly.

It’s without a doubt one of the largest contributors to job creation. Which is why it’s so important to have proper systems in place in the sector.

Aerobotics, a drone company started in December 2014 by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, focuses on agriculture in SA and has found a way to better the sector with innovative drone technology. Paterson was raised on a fruit farm where, at a young age, he designed and mechanised a drip irrigation cleaner as well as various citrus trailers. He then went on to achieve a BSc in Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he went on to win awards and other accolades in ground and aerial robotics.  He then went on to complete his Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

His partner, Meltzer, grew up with a similar interest in mechanics and robotics as he too completed his BSc in Mechatronics at UCT. He later on went to complete his MSc in Neurotechnology at the Imperial College London, where his main focus was on machine learning and computational neuroscience.

The pair later reconnected and showed interest in starting a business together. “The drone space is growing quickly and it was the perfect opportunity to combine both our skill sets. We do everything in-house, from building and maintaining the drones to writing the software for them and processing data,” said Meltzer.

The main drawcard for the Aerobotics drones is that they’re entirely autonomous. You simply select the area for them to cover and the drone will fly itself via autopilot to the selected location and begin scanning the area. The drones will point out exactly where crops are suffering and where they need attention.

Aerobotics uses two types of drones to collect their data. The first, dubbed AeroHawk, is priced at R89 000 excluding VAT and has a flight time of 80 minutes, covering 200 to 300 hectares per flight and featuring a visual and Near Infrared (NIR) camera. The second drone, called Scout, is priced at R78 500 excluding VAT and has a flight time of 18 minutes, being able to cover 10 to 15 hectares per flight and while also using a visual and NIR camera.

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What’s even more impressive is that their drones can detect leaks and determine whether crops are receiving too little or too much water.  The drones also count each individual plant as well as track crop maturity and test drainage.

“The first time we used the drones and the software was a neighbouring farmer in Clanwilliam. With the drone, we were able to point out issues that the farm was having, which was caused by a windbreak that was taking away nutrients from the trees. The owner of the farm was blown away,” said Paterson.

Some time after this test they secured their first client, the University of Stellenbosch’s Plant Readers Laboratory. A year and a half went by and Aerobotics had 20 drone sales, with South Africa’s Cane Growers Association (CANEGROWERS) signing up too.

“SA CANEGROWERS, through its commercial arm, Womoba, has formed a partnership with Aerobotics to leverage the advantages of drones for precision agriculture. Current market pressures do not allow the luxury of outdated farming practices,” said Richard Howes.

Although the agricultural sector’s contribution to the GDP has decreased over the last four decades according to South, it’s still a large part of job development. Add to the fact that farmlands have been ravaged over the years by severe drought and storms, and this means that they can take all the help they can get.

Featured image: Christopher Griner via Flickr



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