The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that farms will eventually account for an 80% share of the projected $127 billion commercial drone market. By conceptualising, developing and building their own autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and systems, a Cape Town start-up is already helping farmers manage their land through drone aerial photography and data analysis.
Founded by two engineers, James Paterson and Benji Meltzer who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Imperial College London respectively, the main focus of Aerobotics is to develop turnkey systems, which collect actionable data for their clients. This is an end-to-end drone solution that includes data processing, analysis software and support.
Paterson and Meltzer, both in their mid-20s, were top of their undergraduate class at the University of Cape Town. A few years later they reconnected and began to discuss starting a business together. Paterson had grown up on a farm in Clanwilliam in the Western Cape and had been inventing tools to assist in agricultural from as young as primary school. His passion for farming and engineering skills were perfectly suited to Meltzer’s strong talents in data collection and analysis.
“The drone space is growing quickly and it was the perfect opportunity to combine both our skillsets. We do everything in-house, from building and maintaining the drones to writing the software for them and processing data,” Meltzer explains.
Aerobotics, a seven-person company that recently acquired GIBS MBA graduate Andrew Burdock as its Commercial Director, currently focuses on the agricultural and mining spaces. It has a joint venture in place in Australia, contracts flowing in and is currently seeking funding partners as it expands in western markets.
With an American study showing that corn, soybean and wheat farmers could save an estimated $1.3 billion annually by using drones to increase crop yields and reduce input costs, the team is making steady progress in this sector. This is largely due to its affordability, ease-of-use and one-flight data versatility. The drones provide valuable data to the farmers, including determining where crops are under stress which helps to increase yields. “It’s all about early problem detection,” Paterson says, “Farmers can also use this data for reducing input costs by reducing both water and chemical usage.”
The Aerobotics drones are appealing in that they are entirely autonomous, which means that the user simply has to select an area that they want to scan and the drone will fly itself via autopilot. The drone then downloads all of the data and pin points, for example, where the crops are under stress. This allows the problem to be rectified before it has fully developed.
“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,” Paterson says. It was December 2014 and the company was officially born.
Aerobotics’ first client was the University of Stellenbosch’s Plant Readers Laboratory. Eighteen months later, they service several clients and have had over 20 drone sales across the board. Recently the South African Cane Growers’ Association (CANEGROWERS) has signed up too.
Innovations Specialist Richard Howes says, “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.”
He adds that Aerobotics technology will allow sugarcane farmers to reduce costs while increasing yields, improving sustainability and profitability in touch economic times.
In the mining sector, the drones are used to conduct surveys and measure stockpiles. According to a survey of 190 miners by International Data Corporation (IDC), two of every three mining companies globally are looking at remote operations and monitoring centres while half are evaluating new mining methods. A third are looking at robotics and one-fourth at unmanned aerial vehicles – drones.
“Mining is still a relatively new sector for drones, but we are making swift headway in the South African market,” explains Meltzer.
Yet this is just the beginning for the young company. They are looking to move into other large markets including livestock farming and security. They are also continuously developing the science behind their data in conjunction with other experts globally, ensuring that they can give their clients more in-depth analysis and a better understanding of the information that the drones collect.
The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that farmers could see a return on investment on agricultural drones of $12 (R174) per acre for corn and $2 to $3 (R29 to R44) per acre for soybeans and wheat. With the South African agricultural sector accounting for 3% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and currently facing challenges including increasing resource limitations, depleted soils and over-extracted and polluted water reserves, not to mention a drought, the market is in need of this type of technology.
In fact a recent PwC global report on the commercial applications of drone technology, it is estimated that drones will bring a market value of $32.4 billion to agriculture and $4.3 billion to mining. The report finds that the drone revolution is disrupting industries across the board.