James Paterson, co-founder and CEO of Aerobotics, hosted the launch live in Franschoek which was live streamed to the various other venues across South Africa.

On 11 October 2018 Aerobotics hosted a launch of their new products simultaneously across the country at 11 venues. Plaas Media attended the Pretoria launch at the Nedbank offices at Menlyn Maine. Aerobotics specialises in products that make precision farming with technology such as satellites and drones more efficient, with artificial intelligence (AI) software.

James Paterson, co-founder and CEO of Aerobotics, gave the farmers attending the various launches more information on the new Aeroview system designed specifically to help fruit farmers manage orchards without even setting foot on the farm. The software makes use of satellite imagery as well as drone footage to help identify pests and diseases as well as other production factors that need to be identified early to prevent economic loss.

Benefits to farmers

With this technology, the traditional scouting methods farmers use can be replaced or enhanced by the programme’s ability to analyse drone and satellite imagery. Scouting on a fruit farm is usually done by workers that need to walk through the orchards to look for signs of pests, disease, nutritional deficiency or other production factors such as canopy growth or fruit and flower identification.

But using scouts is not always reliable, says Paterson. The possibility exists that scouts are not looking in the right places for the right things. Proper documentation of scouting issues is also doubtful. But now, Aeroview can identify individual trees that show abnormal growth using satellite imagery. The software then automatically generates a scout route that scouts can use to gather more data in the field, which is saved to the app. Farmers can then see which routes have been completed and the notes that were added for each tree.

Machine learning

With the new ability of drones to capture high resolution images with sub mm resolution, drone scouting can reach new potentials. Drone images can now zoom in to leaf and fruit level to identify damage by pests such as thrips and deficiencies as well as detect fruit and flowers to improve yield estimates. Images of stressed trees can be run through Aerobotics’ first-ever tree crop and vineyard pest and disease detection database. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, pests and diseases can be identified, and the results then communicated via push notifications to the farmer.

Establishing a database such as this one was no easy task, says Paterson. Hundreds of thousands of photos of common diseases and symptoms of nutritional deficiency had to be collected and marked accordingly by agronomists. The programme currently has 80-90% accuracy.

Benefits to the industry

On top of the above benefits, this technology will also have a positive effect on the agricultural industry. In a panel discussion that took place at the launch John Hudson, national head of agriculture at Nedbank Business Banking said that they are excited and proud to have a minority equity stake in Aerobotics as this technology will reduce the cost price squeeze for farmers.

He also said that the data provided by this technology will allow Nedbank to improve their risk management. In the past historic data was collected over years to help banks manage the risk of offering financial services to farmers. Now even more data will be available that will allow Nedbank to give lower interest rates to low-risk farmers. Lower-risk farmers will also get finer pricing when it comes to loans.

Panellist Janse Rabie, head of natural resources for Agri SA added that other benefits of having such data could help farmers manage resources more efficiently during droughts. This data could also give government more information to aid farmers affected by drought and other natural disasters. –Ursula Human, AgriOrbit