IS IT A BIRD? This “bird” can help farmers to make agricultural practices easier by helping them reach places humans cannot. Photo: Devin Osborne

Eye in sky is changing Agriculture

LOLITA DE ABREU

Former Stellenbosch student Devin Osborne, who is now working with AGTech company, Aerobotics, gave a talk on 21 August in Lombardi 3001 about the future of agriculture under the assistance of Aerobotics. Osborn studied a BSc in Soil Science and Viticulture, completed his MSc in Soil Science, and is now the head of agronomy at Aerobotics. He worked with the company during his masters when they were just starting up and got involved with them once his masters was completed.

Aerobotics is an AGTech company based in Cape Town City Center that, “Help[s] farmers better manage risk on their farms,” says Osborne. Through artificial intelligence and drone images, Aerobotics is able to identify early-on pests and diseases amongst fruit and nut crops. “We offer this through end-to-end monitoring solution that is guided by drone and satellite imagery,” explained Osborne.

Cameron Muir, first year Viticulture and Oenology student, says, “This is a very well thought out idea and can be extremely useful as it can give access to hard to reach areas on the farm.”

Aerobotics own their own drones, and employ a network of pilots across the globe who fly them and collect the imagery that Aerobotics utilizes. “We know how difficult it is for farmers, especially for [those] who are farming very large areas, to walk through all their orchards and blocks every day or week to monitor how their trees are doing. So we act as their eye in the sky and monitor every tree on the farm,” Osborne says. Their tree census involves identifying the tree’s volume, height, chlorophyll levels and canopy area.

Farmers can plan their own flights by simply choosing the speed and height they desire, and the drone will be sent on an automated flight. The drone imagery is uploaded onto the application and sewn together in order to make one clear image. Everything is done automatically and electronically.

Upon signing up, Aerobotics offers two years of historical satellite data for the fields. Although their technology is unable to tell the difference between citrus varieties at the moment, the data provided from their application assists farmers by monitoring and colour coding the performance of crops, identifying weak areas, identifying pest and disease, and picking up wavelengths unknown to the naked eye such as identifying trees that are under stress and possible threats based on this information.

All of this is made possible by low-resolution weekly satellite imagery, high-resolution drone imagery, and multispectral imagery. Peter Norvig, head of research at Google, has praised their data annotation skills. Joshua Youldon, first year Viticulture and Oenology student, said, “The technology would be very helpful in the wine industry and possibly help farmers produce world-class grapes. Aerobotics has put themselves in an ideal position between new technologies and well established farming systems. [They] bridge the gaps that farmers have encountered for years.”

Farmers can go years back into their data and compare the state of their farm with previous years. They can also take their data into the field with them and collect their own data offline using the Aeroview Scout app offered by the company. Aerobotics is currently working on a new yield estimate tool. Osborne explained that this includes drone snapshots that the application will use to count fruits as well as estimate size and quality. “The future of agriculture will no doubt be changed by the use and implementation of drone and estimation technology.

It allows for farmers to possibly save on hours of manually checking their crops and save on manpower needed to tend to the crop, as they will be able to locate the specific areas that need the most help,” Youldon said.

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