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Image credit: Aerobotics

Q&A: Aerobotics co-founder James Paterson on centering the farm in ‘farm tech’

November 29, 2021

Disclosure: AFN’s parent company AgFunder, and network partner FMO, are investors in Aerobotics.

Farm tech investments have been on a tear. Last year the sector, which covers agricultural technologies that sit closest to the farm (think robotics, high-tech greenhouses, and online marketplaces connecting farmers to inputs and buyers), secured $7.9 billion in investment – up 41% from the previous year, according to AgFunder.

South Africa’s Aerobotics was one startup to share in that explosive growth. The Cape Town-based company, which provides farm-level data insights using satellite and drone imagery for fruit growers, raised close to $17 million in Series B funding last December from Naspers Foundry, FMO, Endeavor Catalyst, Cathay AfricInvest Innovation, and others. Today, it serves more than 350 farming groups cultivating 600,000 acres annually in Africa and the US.

As Aerobotics grows, it is positioning itself as a farming company, enabled by technology, rather than a tech company that is focused on farming. The distinction is important in a sector exploding with new offerings, says co-founder and CEO James Paterson, who comes from a family of citrus farmers in South Africa.

“Farming is a specialized industry that requires one to fully understand its intricacies to succeed in serving that niche,” Paterson tells AFN.

Read on to hear more from Paterson (JP) about how climate change is impacting Aerobotics’ growers, and how thinking like a farmer helps the company serve them better.

AFN: Climate change is presenting an increasingly serious challenge for the food and agriculture sectors. What critical issues are you seeing for fruit growers that could be alleviated with better data?

JP: Water is the big one: efficient use of water and uniform application of that [across farming operations]. The other piece that affects fruit farming quite a lot is temperature. Changing climate conditions affect fruit growth because it is very dependent on temperature.

There is an increased drive towards sustainability – tracking sustainable farming practices such as planting cover crops in-between harvests and making sure carbon levels are improving. We’re [helping farmers by] measuring carbon over time. 

AFN: Can you give us the quick overview on how your technology works?

JP: Our technology helps farmers to identify where they [experience] limiting factors and where they could increase production. They have to identify at a high level what was causing that, whether it’s a soil and irrigation problem, and what would help fix that.

Essentially, it starts with collecting the right data. We use satellite data regularly, but mainly [rely on] high-resolution drone imagery from a visual spectrum, which helps us see through multi-spectral layers; and we use thermal imagery, which helps in measuring temperature.

Checking in with Aerobotics 

Drones collect all that data across the farm, and we process it to build a digital model of each plant, enabling us to identify and track that plant over time: its size, how it’s growing, as well as the transpiration, fruit count, and fruit size. With this data, we can tell the farmer [about] fruit size and count, and also whether there are limitations that they could correct to get a higher yield — with their soil or nutrition program, for example — or if there is disease.

The goal is to help farmers optimize and secure their production and yields. First, we identify where they are getting subpar yields or subpar performance, then we work with farmers to fix those problems and track over time how they are improving.

We focus on all fruits and nuts, like almonds in California, pecans in the southern US, and apples in Washington state, so we can process a broad variety of specialty crops.

AFN: You have a data and software-based solution, but your field work depends pretty heavily on being on-site and using hardware to collect the information you need. How have you put all of those pieces together? 

JP: When a farmer signs up for a season, we schedule partner operators to go and collect the data across the farm. We also have an option where farmers can fly their drones and we handle the data processing side for them. We built our pipelines to handle scale, process all the data automatically, and deliver results back to farmers quickly.

The business model on the hardware side works like Uber. Our drone partners buy the hardware and camera systems themselves, and we contract them to do the flights. On our side, we raised capital to build the AI side of the business and get it to a state where we can then commercialize it with farmers.

Africa for us is a very important market. South Africa is where we started, and we have the most clients in Africa, but the US is our biggest market. We are servicing most of the big farming groups there. This year we will handle about a third of the Florida citrus market through our software. Most of our revenue comes from that side.

AFN: There are a lot of remote sensing and AI solutions hitting the market now, effectively offering the same kinds of services as Aerobotics. What makes you different?

JP: The most important thing is that you have to solve real problems for farmers and tie into what’s most important to them. For us measuring the yield is vital. Also, with the scarcity of water around the world, helping farmers use water more efficiently and giving them the insights to do that is vital. We also help growers apply fertilizer in the right parts of [their farms] to get those blocs to become more uniform, more efficient, and also more sustainable.

There are other players getting into the industry, and some of them overlap with what we do, but we don’t see a lot of direct competition – not to the point that we are losing customers to another company. We are looking to partner with companies that provide in-field services, such as soil-leaf sampling and fertilizer programs, and to work closely with companies that provide in-field analysis and corrective programs for farmers.

AFN: What is next for Aerobotics?

JP: We will continue to focus on big impact areas where we can work with growers. Continuing to build out the irrigation side of the business us is very important. Variable-rate fertilizer application is also really important, because efficient resource use is going to become more of an issue.

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