How Drones and AI Can Improve Farming in Africa

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SEATTLE — A South African startup company called Aerobotics has begun to earn international attention in recent months. Aerobotics is a tech company focused on providing data to farmers through the innovative use of satellites, drones, AI and cloud computing. As this new technology progresses, it could significantly impact the future of farming in Africa.

The Need for Modernization

As a whole, Africa has a vast amount of available farmland. Unfortunately, its agriculture is held back by a string of connected problems.

Much of Africa’s farmland is simply not being used. According to World Bank estimates, there is more uncultivated arable land in sub-Saharan Africa than there is cultivated farmland in the United States. Much of that land is concentrated in only a few countries, meaning that the potential to increase agricultural productivity is not equal across the region.

Agriculture employs 60 percent of Africa’s workers and produces nearly a third of its GDP, but it often relies on outdated methods and tools. Financing is difficult to come by, and so modernizing is difficult and expensive. Making matters worse, young workers are leaving rural areas for cities, and agriculture for more innovative industries.

These circumstances have left an aging, underfunded, underequipped workforce to deal with the demands of the rapidly growing African population. And all of these difficulties are, of course, combined with the natural risks and uncertainties of agriculture such as disease and drought. These natural obstacles to farming in Africa are exactly what Aerobotics is targetting.

Watching Every Tree

Aerobotics’ core service is providing information to farmers. That might not sound very exciting at first, but the innovation is found in the way the information is collected.

First, satellites and drones take aerial images that form Aerobotics’ raw data. These alone would not be worth much to farmers, so the AI behind Aerobotics’ Aeroview program next analyzes the pictures. The program is able to identify every individual tree in a farmer’s fields and monitor each one for potentially harmful changes that could be the result of disease, pests or a lack of water.

Farmers who use Aerobotics’ technology are alerted to these changes through the company’s Aeroview Scout app. The technology can help farmers learn about dangers to their crop before they cause serious damage. Not only can it accomplish this automatically, freeing farmers to tend their crops in other ways, it can also point farmers to the exact trees that are showing signs of trouble.

The Future of Farming in Africa

In the long run, Aerobotics hopes its technology can save farmers both the time it takes to monitor their crops and the expense of losing portions of their harvest.

According to Aerobotics, its clients currently see up to 10 percent higher yields after using their program. The information that farmers receive also helps them more strategically use insecticide sprays. Rather than spreading them across all their crops, Aerobotics pinpoints which trees are threatened by pests and allows for far more selective use of harmful chemicals.

Co-founder Benjamin Meltzer predicts that the information Aerobotics provides will only grow more precise with time. Current technology monitors each tree but can only alert a client when there are signs of a threat. Farmers must examine the flagged trees to determine what is wrong themselves. Future developments currently in the works could allow the Aeroview system to monitor every leaf on every tree and accurately diagnose the issue before farmers even know there is a problem.

Aerobotics, which currently serves clients in 11 countries, has shown enough promise that Google has taken notice of the startup and included it in its Launchpad Accelerator program. Meltzer noted that collaborating with Google’s experienced team has helped Aerobotics as it plans to expand its scope in both South Africa (where it has around 450 clients) and around the world.

While still fairly small today, Aerobotics and tech-savvy companies like it across the continent have the potential to alter the landscape of farming in Africa with much-needed innovations.

– Joshua Henreckson
Photo: Flickr

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