January 22, 2021
Using drones to track tree growth
South African AI-powered agriculture company Aerobotics has raised $17 million in an oversubscribed Series B round.
The round was led by investment firm Naspers, which last year put $6.7m into Aerobotics. Other backers include Platform Investment Partners, FMO: Entrepreneurial Development Bank, and Cathay AfricInvest Innovation.
Old MacDonald had a smart farm
Aerobotics uses drones and other robotics systems equipped with artificial intelligence to help fruit and tree farmers. Its drones take to the skies three times throughout the season, for orchard management, problem tree identification, pest and disease management, and yield management. The drones are operated by specialist pilots.
The company takes the recorded data and combines it with historical satellite data of crop health, and provides reports and alerts for farmers. Late last year, it added the ability to import soil maps to the platform to help track how soil quality impacts crop performance.
The system provides yield estimates to farmers along with harvest schedules, ideally helping them predict demand and prepare for when stock will be ready.
"We’re committed to providing intelligent tools to optimize automation, minimize inputs and maximize production," Aerobotics CEO James Paterson said. "We look forward to further co-developing our products with the agricultural industry leaders.”
The company is one of a number of businesses looking to shake up the agricultural sector, one which has gone through countless transformations across millennia, but that has yet to fully embrace the digital age. In developed nations, farmers use advanced machinery and some sensors, but data is usually siloed and not fed into advanced AI systems.
To feed the growing global population amid catastrophic environmental decline, we will need to use 'computational agriculture,’" Google parent Alphabet argued. To pull this off, the company last year launched a new offspring: Mineral. It is building a suite of robots, sensors, and platforms to track how plants grow and respond to their environment.
Project lead Dr. Elliott Grant asked last year: “What if every single plant could be monitored and given exactly the nutrition it needed? What if we could untangle the genetic and environmental drivers of crop yield?
“What if we could measure the subtle ways a plant responds to its environment? What if we could match a crop variety to a parcel of land for optimum sustainability?”
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