US expansion a major focus for SA’s Aerobotics in 2019

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South African agri-tech startup Aerobotics is focusing heavily on expanding its operations in the United States (US) in 2019, which is one of 11 markets in which the company operates.

Founded in Cape Town in 2014, Aerobotics uses aerial imagery from drones and satellites, and blends them with machine learning algorithms to provide early problem detection services to tree and wine farmers and optimise crop performance.

The startup’s cloud-based application Aeroview provides farmers with insights, scout mapping and other tools to mitigate damage to tree and vine crops from pest and disease.

“Aerobotics can identify a tree or vine that is experiencing stress down to the individual tree canopy level. The technology also measures tree height and canopy volume and can track these metrics on each individual tree and vine over time,” the startup’s chief executive officer (CEO) James Paterson, who grew up in a farming family in the Western Cape, told Disrupt Africa.

“Information about stressed trees is inputted into Aeroview, an application that provides plant level data to farmers to analyse their crops, on a plant by plant basis. Aerobotics’ technology can then automatically generate a scout map for farmers, instruct drones to scout problem trees and identify what pest or disease is causing stress on a tree. This helps each farmer make a fast, accurate and informed decision about mitigating damage on the farm.”

The startups recently launched a batch of new products, with Paterson saying its potential impact is huge.

“In a rapidly changing climate and increasingly competitive environment, farmers are faced with uncertainty and challenges that are both old and new. Output can take drastic hits depending on weather cycles, the introduction and spread of new problems, pests and diseases and a variety of other challenges,” he said.

“Before Aerobotics, pest and disease detection technology had not been quick or accurate enough to have much real-world impacts for farmers. And with global competition disrupting markets anywhere and at any time, farmers are searching everywhere for solutions that can help them mitigate loss and increase yields on their farms to ensure profitability and sustainability.”

Though there are a handful of companies working on different aspects of the value chain, from drone hardware and mapping to pest and disease image analysis, Paterson said he is not aware of any company other than Aerobotics that can deliver the level of details on individual trees and vines along with an easy to use interface at the price point Aerobotics offers.

Given this, it is hardly surprising the startup – which operates a subscription model – has been backed by investors to expand across the world. The company has raised two funding rounds totalling US$2.6 million from investors such as Nedbank, AgFunder, 4Di Capital and Savannah Fund, took part in Google’s Launchpad Accelerator, and is now active in 11 markets globally, including South Africa, the US, the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia.

“At this point, most of Aerobotics customers are based in South Africa,” Paterson said. “Aerobotics is currently providing its cutting-edge technology to 40 per cent of the macadamia nut market and 20 per cent of the citrus market in South Africa. Aerobotics is also helping wine, apples, blueberry, peach, avocado and various other farmers in South Africa and around the world.

He said there is also interest from industry partners such as lenders, insurers and co-operatives, with the startup’s primary focus for 2019 being expansion in the US.

“Aerobotics is for any tree and vine farmer that is interested in utilising the latest precision agriculture technology to mitigate pest and disease damage on the farm, save costs, increase efficiency and yields and produce a more balanced crop,” said Paterson.

“Aerobotics recently announced that it has processed its 10 millionth tree in its database and expects that number to grow quickly. The more trees Aerobotics processes in its software, the stronger and more accurate Aerobotics’ artificial intelligence becomes.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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