Aerobotics Drones Help the World’s Fruit and Nut Farmers Boost Their Crop Yields

A South Africa-based drone company is helping fruit and nut farmers worldwide to maximize their crop yield with the help of sophisticated aerial mapping and data collection systems enhanced with artificial intelligence (AI).  The 9-year old drone firm is already operating in 18 countries.  Its largest market by far is the United States, primarily California, followed by Australia, Spain and Portugal. Its customers produce tens of millions of tons of fresh produce every year; with the help of AI systems they’ve seen their yields – and their profits – skyrocket.

Aerobotics is part of a growing trend among global drone companies to specialize in “precision” agriculture – the targeting of inputs – water, seeds, fertilizer and pesticides – to areas of a farm where they can do the most good.  Armed with sophisticated AI-enhanced sensors, the drones can detect areas of highest soil fertility and crop stress and determine the precise amounts of water, seeds, fertilizer and pesticides to apply to each area, conserving resources and reducing waste. They can also help model the likely trajectory of crop yields over time, enhancing a farm’s strategic planning and marketing operations

“We work with a range of fruit and nut producers across the U.S., from citrus and table grape growers in California, to apple producers in Washington, to nut growers in Arizona and New Mexico,” Aerobotics CEO James Patterson.  “We have mapped over 600,000 acres of farmland in the U.S., and growers are uploading over 1 million images of fruit per month through our platform, using our system to scale their knowledge.”

Paterson is no newbie.  He first became involved with cutting-edge AI and drone technologies as a master’s degree student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializing in agricultural applications.  Soon afterward, he partnered with Benji Meltzer, an expert in computer vision and software systems, to found the now 60-strong Aerobotics team.  The company boasts a total of 22 investors and has raised $27.1 million to date over several investment rounds, including a fresh infusion of $17 million from 5 new investors in the last two weeks alone.

Aerobotics’ AI systems are amazingly sophisticated but also extremely user-friendly.  Farmers can use mobile phones to direct drones over their properties to map images and collect data on the health status of their fruit and nut crops.  Aerobotics software then feeds the data into servers that estimate crop yield, right down to the individual tree. The projections guide planning for packhouses, sales teams and retailers but the data can also be used to estimate future farm input needs.

“As data accumulates on a farm, the models are fine-tuned to that specific environment. Essentially, the AI models learn and adapt to localized growing conditions, enhancing forecasting accuracy and enabling comparisons to previous years,” Paterson says.

Aerobotics AI programs also produce a digital model of each tree on a farm, at scale, tracking it over time. “Each tree is conceptualized as a factory that can be optimized to produce the highest quality fruit. Data is gathered by drones equipped with thermal and multispectral cameras, operated either by the grower or through our third-party pilot network,” Paterson notes.

Aerobotics’ website is replete with case studies of enhanced crop yield and increased revenue due to the use of AI systems to boost precision agriculture.  In the company’s native South Africa, Aerobotics has worked with Kriegler Farms to tailor the company’s farm input use to enhance the volume and quality of seedless grape production.  Over three years, with AI-generated data, Kriegler Farms was able to reduce fertilizer and ameliorant inputs by 75,208 lbs, resulting in a cost savings of $45 per hectare.  In addition, by assessing vine health variability, the company helped Kriegler ensure that each plant was sufficiently nurtured, thereby increasing yield by 9% and generating an additional $136,864 in revenue.

Aerobotics faces stiff competition in the global agriculture drone market, which is expected to grow from $1.81 billion in 2023 to $8.1 billion in 2030, at a CAGR of nearly 24%.  But the size and scope and rapid diversification of the market also allows for individual companies to carve out important sub-niches, as Aerobotics has among fruit and nut producers.  Within South Africa, it’s far and away the nation’s leading drone start-up firm.  With continuing cutting-edge technological innovation fueled by some of the world’s leading technology investment firms – including Internet giant Naspers, one of the world’ largest  – the company’s assured of a prominent place in the evolving precision drone market.

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