Think agriculture could be spared from the latest software renaissance? Think again.

Agtech startup, Aerobotics, which builds software to better farm yields, picked up $4 million from Paper Plane Ventures and other investors. Based in Cape Town, the company’s tools automate farmland  yield estimates so farmers can figure out just how much crop they’ll grow. It could mean bigger profits and less waste for farmers.

Grit Daily caught up with Aerobotics CEO James Paterson and comms director Zachary Giglio to take a deeper dive into how its tech works and how quickly they’ll be putting apps in farmers’ hands.

1. Your team has its own set of interesting entrepreneurial backgrounds. Share those. 

Zachary Giglio: Aerobotics co-founders James Paterson and Benji Meltzer grew up in the Western Cape in South Africa and met while studying mechatronics at the University of Cape Town. They parted ways for higher education before returning back to South Africa to start Aerobotics.

Benji Meltzer, CTO
Benji obtained a BSc in Mechatronics Engineering at UCT in 2011 and then worked as a software engineer and business analyst at the Cyest Corporation in Johannesburg, Chile and Australia. The work comprised of building software models of businesses and using these to simulate operations and optimize performance in the mining, telecommunications and logistics industries. He then obtained a Msc in Neurotechnology at Imperial College London. His main research areas at Imperial focussed on machine learning and computational neuroscience. Thereafter he joined Uber for a year, where he worked as an Operations and Logistics Manager for Sub Saharan Africa.

James Paterson, CEO

James was brought up on a fruit farm and has always had a love for robotics, inventions and entrepreneurship. While on the farm, he designed and built a mechanized drip-line irrigation cleaner as well as citrus trailers. He holds a BSc in Mechatronics Engineering from UCT, winning awards for building aerial and ground robots during his time there. He went on to study a Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.

During his time at MIT, he worked on projects including gimball ed rocket control, an optical-flow localization system and autonomous collision avoidance and path planning algorithms for unmanned aerial vehicles. His main contribution to the field of artificial intelligence was his research into developing planning and scheduling algorithms for autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle missions including search-and-rescue and area mapping.

Tim Willis, COO

Tim Willis is the COO of Aerobotics, where he oversees the operations of the company and the growth of its brand and operations around the world. Tim previously worked at Uber, managing Analytics & Strategy for the Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA) Central Operations Team based out of Amsterdam, Netherlands.  Prior to that, Tim led operations for the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) Uber team, which included growing the driver-partner supply base, monitoring the marketplace and providing the business with analytics support.

Before joining Uber, Tim worked as an Audit Manager in Financial Services audit at Deloitte, serving two of the top four major banks in South Africa.  Tim is a CA(SA) and has passed all three CFA examinations.

Andrew Burdock, Chief Commercial Officer
Andrew obtained a BCom in Management Accounting and Information Systems at Wits University in 2002. He then went onto a financial career across a number of different industries including banking at FNB and security at ADT. During this part of his career, Andrew was also studying part time and obtained both a Chartered Management Accounting qualification (CIMA) and an MBA at GIBS.

Andrew lead the new product development team at ADT before going on to run ADT’s coastal branches as a general manager. Andrew has extensive business, managerial and financial experience behind him and published his thesis on contrasting partnerships within the low income and traditional markets, where he conducted in-depth research on accessing innovative markets.

Stuart van der Veen, Chief Platform Officer
As Chief Platform Officer, Stuart van der Veen manages partnerships in agriculture and adjacent industries around the world for Aerobotics. Before Aerobotics, Stuart worked at Nedbank Corporate and Investment Banking (CIB), where he was Head of Disruption and Innovation. His highlights included winning the Financial Times of London ‘The Banker Tech Projects Award for Fintech Partnerships,’ bringing Silicon Valley’s Plug and Play Tech Centre to Africa for the first time and populating a widely admired venture capital investment portfolio.

At Nedbank, Stuart successfully created new market opportunities in strategic industries, including a financial services partnership with Aerobotics in agriculture. Together, they worked to better serve clients by garnering unique data-driven insights through tree crop aerial imagery analytics.

2. What was the spark behind aerobotics?

ZG: Co-founder and CEO James Paterson grew up on a citrus farm in Citrusdal in South Africa, where he built technology and tinkered on the farm as a child. Co-Founder and CTO Benji Meltzer also grew up in the Western Cape, which has a rich agriculture tradition.

The spark behind Aerobotics came from the an intimate understanding of the challenges farmers face when managing pests and diseases on a farm and optimizing yield during harvest season. The challenges, such as the traditional methods of pest and disease identification, locating problem areas on a farm and yield estimation, presented an opportunity for two people with backgrounds in machine learning and aero and astronautics to build technology and solutions that would provide farmers with data and actionable insights that were previously not available.

3. What’s behind the name? 

ZG: “Aerobotics” really just camed from “aerial robotics.” Additionally, CEO James Paterson worked in the AeroAstro department at MIT, which is also where they had the idea for the logo colors.

4. How does farm yield management work now? What’s new with your tech? 

ZG: Farmers traditionally have faced challenges recording the data they capture in the field when scouting and analyzing yield samples. Inaccurate and inefficient recording of data makes yield management more onerous and less effective. Aerobotics’ new yield management tool that is being built within the Aeroview app allows farmers to select a yield sample in their orchard, capture fruit counts and fruit size and get a report on the size distribution and number of fruits.

This yield management tool helps farmers make informed decisions on how much fruit to thin during the early stages of the season to create better spacing for the rest of the fruit to grow, which will optimize their yield when it is time to harvest. This technology will be commercially available in the United States at the beginning of the 2019 growing season.

5. What are your latest moves in California? 

ZG: Two members of the Aerobotics Executive Team are moving to California to grow the company’s business development around the United States, where the company currently has two business development managers and is working with 10,000 acres of crops.

Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Burdock and Chief Platform Officer Stuart van der Veen will be based in Los Angeles, where they will grow Aerobotics’ US-based staff to eight by the end of 2019. These new hires will be based in Los Angeles and around the United States, where there are high concentrations of tree and vine crops.

6. What does the current revenue picture look like? 

ZG: While we at Aerobotics do not share revenue statistics, we can say that we currently have approximately 6,000 users signed up to the platform, have processed more than 22 million trees in our database and are operating in 15 countries around the world.