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Digital All Stars is a series of articles which aims to celebrate the best of South African digital. The articles, which will appear on Memeburn and Ventureburn, recognise and celebrate South Africa’s best digital entrepreneurs, business people, advertisers, and media professionals among others.
In this piece we take a look at some interesting startups involved in developing drones and drone software solutions.
Aerobotics was started in 2014 by Benji Meltzer (pictured above, left) and James Paterson. Using artificial intelligence (AI), Aerobotics deploys drones to help farmers in South Africa, Australia and the UK to collect data and to 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 startup, which is based in Cape Town and has 11 employees, has previously been selected for Startupbootcamp Insurtech accelerator programme in London. The two have so far used their own funds to finance operations, but signed a term sheet in March for the startup’s first round of funding.
Durban-based software startup DroneScan has developed software that allows drones to scan inventory using ScanMan software. It allows a drone operator to count as much stock in a warehouse in two days as a team of 80 people with handheld scanners and reach trucks can count in three days.
This year the startup, which was started in 2013 by Craig Leppan and Jasper Pons (pictured above during his recent US visit), completed some key project and product sales. These include a trip in February to a large US multinational for a proof of concept demonstration. Leppan said he could not share details of the client because of a non-disclosure agreement he and Pons had signed.
He said the big next phase is to rollout to Nestle internationally. The startup has also completed integration with SAP in February and that sees them on “final contracting to rollout to five to 10 sites from September”.
The startup has previously been able to get an undisclosed amount in matching grant funding from South Africa’s Support Programme for Industrial Innovation.
However, Leppan said funding had been really disappointing and has seen the startup having to go through many admin-heavy processes for accelerators and investors. “We are still looking for a key strategic partner or investor who can add more than cash to the business,” he said.
DroneClouds (with founder Theo Pistorius on the left and Dave Campey and Product lead Steyn Viljoen on the right) helps farmers find crop issues sooner by using drones, satellites and local agricultural experts.
The Cape Town startup was founded in November 2015 when Theo Pistorius and David Campey entered the SA National Space Agency (Sansa) and Airbus Defence & Space (ADS) Innovation Challenge under the name DroneClouds, as a joint venture between IntegriSense and Afrolabs.
After winning the competition and visiting Airbus in Toulouse in October last year the two changed the company’s name from IntegriSense to DroneClouds, with Afrolabs acquiring a 50% share of the company on 1 May after investing R1-million in the company.
To date, the company has helped over 400 South African farmers make cost and water savings and yield increases on various farms of between five percent and 30%.
The startup’s clients include farmers, agro-chemical distributors and specialists, large agricultural companies (including Bayer and Monsanto), and research institutions and universities. The startup also provides research data for university students and projects.
The startup recently entered the Worldwide BayWA/RWA Agro-Innovation Lab, which saw 265 entrants. At the time of writing the company had made it through to the top nine finalists.
In addition, the startup is looking to raise $600 000 in finance, having received the first US $100 000 from angel investor Rishan Bhagowat.
“We continue to add individual farmers and groups on our platform and for drone insight. On the science front (we have signed) a Bayer (Pty) Ltd research site contract (and a) Monsanto (Pty) Ltd research site contract,” the team told Ventureburn.
The company has also been trialing some customer interaction methods (such as Facebook for crop support), with machine learning and hyperspectral imaging being two other technologies being investigated.
Founded by Richard Hardiman, Ranmarine Technology uses WasteShark — 24-hour on-the-water drones. The solar-powered drones collect detritus, marine waste and chemical substances from ports and canals.
Hardiman told Ventureburn that the company has only just launched commercially this month. However, it already has a pilot project lined up in South Africa with Transnet and the Port of Durban for later this year to test WasteShark in SA waters.
Founded in 2015 in South Africa, the company was later re-incorporated in the Netherlands at the start of last year as RanMarine Technology BV.
Hardiman is based in Rotterdam. He moved there after being selected for PortXL Rotterdam’s maritime accelerator (portxl.org) in February last year. The startup was one of 12 companies selected from 1000 startups worldwide.
In July last year the startup began a pilot with the Port of Rotterdam to test both the use of autonomous surface vessels in their waters and how the product actually works in “high trafficked waters”. The pilot was successfully completed last month.
You might not know it, but there are a variety of drone startups formed by South Africans or based in the country
“We are now producing commercially with customers initially based in Holland, Sweden, the UAE and Singapore at this stage,” he added.
The startup’s customers include port authorities, municipalities, and in-land water authorities, through to private waste management companies as well as hotels (with large water areas), golf club and private yacht marinas.
“Most people think of drones as aerial but to us, it is anything that can be remotely controlled. Our drones also send back environmental data from the water at the same time to give customers workable reports to work from (sic) when determining what is in the water area they control.”
In February, the company took on investors as well.
“We are currently in talks with a number of distributors worldwide to supply product,” he said. He didn’t want to disclose any revenue or investment figures, adding only that the February investment was a “minority stake” investment in the firm.
With its product range having changed, SteadiDrone, which is based in Knysna, earlier this year changed its name to ALTI.
SteadiDrone owner Duran De Villiers described the new identity as “simply on a very different level in terms of price, clients, industry and more”, adding that they wanted the new brand identity to go with the new product.
The company has yet to take on any private investors or funding since launching in 2012. It is currently the world’s leading vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) commercial unmanned aircraft manufacturing company (pictured in the featured image of this article is one of the company’s drones).
De Villiers said the company is on course to hit R50-million in sales this year and currently has 12 employees, with openings for technicians and a sales manager.
“We are now developing and manufacturing pretty much every aspect of the system in-house, airframe, avionics, software, PCBs, hardware and more…”
The company’s various drone offerings sell from $45 000 to $75 000, while it has dealerships in South America, the USA, Canada, UK, most of Europe, UAE, Australia and South Africa.
Aerial Monitoring Solutions
Aerial monitoring solutions managing director Adam Rosman said his company last year took on three large investors who “invested heavily” in the business.
The startup, which is based in Wynberg, Johannesburg and was founded in 2013 by Rosman, is now looking to open a small maintenance hub in Cape Town over the course of the next year. The company has 11 employees.
The company’s main clients are farmers and security companies that use the drones for agriculture monitoring, farm security, game counting and anti-poaching.
“This is owing to the fact that our system, The Eagle-Owl, is best suited to wide area surveillance and BVLOS [beyond visual line of sight – ed] operations,” explained Rosman.
The Eagle-Owl was made available earlier this year and is completely modular in its design, which allows for the system to be tailored to each customer’s needs.
“This also allows for the system to have a diverse range of applications from security and game counting to terrain mapping and infrastructure monitoring,” said Rosman.
He said the company is currently producing two complete units per month. The representative said that this is likely to be scaled up over the next few months due to increased demand.
AMS has also since launched quadcopters that can be used for training pilots as well as an online maintenance portal where customers with any drone can create a profile and log a maintenance request. Drones are collected by a courier and the company performs an assessment on their craft within 24 hours.
“If happy, the customer can then proceed with the maintenance and will have their system back within 72 hours,” he said.