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Drones fly high in farming

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The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that farms will eventually account for an 80% share of the projected $127 billion commercial drone market, which is why a Cape Town start-up has already found ways to help farmers mange their land through drone photography and data analysis.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that farms will eventually account for an 80% share of the projected $127 billion commercial drone market. By conceptualising, developing and building their own autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and systems, a Cape Town start-up is already helping farmers manage their land through drone aerial photography and data analysis.

Founded by two engineers, James Paterson and Benji Meltzer who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Imperial College London respectively, the main focus of Aerobotics is to develop turnkey systems, which collect actionable data for their clients. This is an end-to-end drone solution that includes data processing, analysis software and support.

Paterson and Meltzer, both in their mid-20s, were top of their undergraduate class at the University of Cape Town. A few years later they reconnected and began to discuss starting a business together. Paterson had grown up on a farm in Clanwilliam in the Western Cape and had been inventing tools to assist in agricultural from as young as primary school. His passion for farming and engineering skills were perfectly suited to Meltzer’s strong talents in data collection and analysis.

“The drone space is growing quickly and it was the perfect opportunity to combine both our skillsets. We do everything in-house, from building and maintaining the drones to writing the software for them and processing data,” Meltzer explains.

Aerobotics, a seven-person company that recently acquired GIBS MBA graduate Andrew Burdock as its Commercial Director, currently focuses on the agricultural and mining spaces. It has a joint venture in place in Australia, contracts flowing in and is currently seeking funding partners as it expands in western markets.

With an American study showing that corn, soybean and wheat farmers could save an estimated $1.3 billion annually by using drones to increase crop yields and reduce input costs, the team is making steady progress in this sector. This is largely due to its affordability, ease-of-use and one-flight data versatility. The drones provide valuable data to the farmers, including determining where crops are under stress which helps to increase yields. “It’s all about early problem detection,” Paterson says, “Farmers can also use this data for reducing input costs by reducing both water and chemical usage.”

The Aerobotics drones are appealing in that they are entirely autonomous, which means that the user simply has to select an area that they want to scan and the drone will fly itself via autopilot. The drone then downloads all of the data and pin points, for example, where the crops are under stress. This allows the problem to be rectified before it has fully developed.

“The first time we used the drones and the software was a neighbouring farmer in Clanwilliam. With the drone, we were able to point out issues that the farm was having, which was caused by a windbreak that was taking away nutrients from the trees. The owner of the farm was blown away,” Paterson says. It was December 2014 and the company was officially born.

Aerobotics’ first client was the University of Stellenbosch’s Plant Readers Laboratory. Eighteen months later, they service several clients and have had over 20 drone sales across the board. Recently the South African Cane Growers’ Association (CANEGROWERS) has signed up too.

Innovations Specialist Richard Howes says, “SA CANEGROWERS, through its commercial arm, Womoba, has formed a partnership with Aerobotics to leverage the advantages of drones for precision agriculture. Current market pressures do not allow the luxury of outdated farming practices.”

He adds that Aerobotics technology will allow sugarcane farmers to reduce costs while increasing yields, improving sustainability and profitability in touch economic times.

In the mining sector, the drones are used to conduct surveys and measure stockpiles. According to a survey of 190 miners by International Data Corporation (IDC), two of every three mining companies globally are looking at remote operations and monitoring centres while half are evaluating new mining methods. A third are looking at robotics and one-fourth at unmanned aerial vehicles – drones.

“Mining is still a relatively new sector for drones, but we are making swift headway in the South African market,” explains Meltzer.

Yet this is just the beginning for the young company. They are looking to move into other large markets including livestock farming and security. They are also continuously developing the science behind their data in conjunction with other experts globally, ensuring that they can give their clients more in-depth analysis and a better understanding of the information that the drones collect.

The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that farmers could see a return on investment on agricultural drones of $12 (R174) per acre for corn and $2 to $3 (R29 to R44) per acre for soybeans and wheat. With the South African agricultural sector accounting for 3% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and currently facing challenges including increasing resource limitations, depleted soils and over-extracted and polluted water reserves, not to mention a drought, the market is in need of this type of technology.

In fact a recent PwC global report on the commercial applications of drone technology, it is estimated that drones will bring a market value of $32.4 billion to agriculture and $4.3 billion to mining. The report finds that the drone revolution is disrupting industries across the board.

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Android Go puts reliable smartphones in budget pockets

Nokia, Vodacom and Huawei have all launched entry-level smartphones running the Android Go edition, and all deliver a smooth experience, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Three new and notable Android Go smartphones have recently hit the market, namely the Nokia 1, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 and the Huawei Y3 (2018). These phones run one of the most basic versions of Android while still delivering a fairly smooth user experience.

Historically, consumers purchasing smartphones in the budget bracket would have a hit-and-miss experience with processing speed, smoothness of user interface, and app stability. The Google-supported Android Go edition operating system optimises the user experience by stripping out non-important visual effects to speed up the phone. Thish allows for more memory to be used by apps. 

Google also ensures that all smartphones running Android Go will receive feature and security updates as they are released by Google. This is a major selling point for these smartphones, as users of this smartphone will always be running the latest software, with virtually no manufacturer bloatware.

Vodafone Smart Kicka 4

At the lowest entry-level, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performs well as a communicator for emails and WhatsApp messages. The 4” screen represents a step up for entry-level Android phones, which were previously standardised at 3.5”.

The display is bright and very responsive, while the limited screen real estate leaves the navigation keys off the screen as touch buttons. It uses 3G connectivity, which might seem like an outdated technology, but is good enough to stream SD videos and music. Vodacom has also thrown in some data gifts if the smartphone is activated before the end of September 2018. 

Its camera functionalities might be a slight let down for the aspirant Instagrammer, with a 2MP rear flash camera and a 0.3MP selfie snapper. Speed wise, the keyboard pops up quickly, which is a huge improvement from the Smart Kicka 3. However, this phone will not play well with graphics-intensive games. 

Nokia 1

Next up is the Nokia 1, which adds a much better 5MP camera, improved battery life and a bigger 4.5” screen. It supports LTE, which allows this smartphone to download and upload at the speed of flagships. It also sports the Nokia brand name, which many consumers trust.

Although the front camera is 2MP, the quality is extremely grainy, even with good lighting. This disqualifies this smartphone for the social media selfie snapper, but the 5MP rear camera will work for the landscape and portrait photographer. 

The screen also redeems this smartphone, providing a display which represents colours truly and has great viewing angles. Xpress-on back covers allows the use of interchangeable, multi-coloured back covers, which has proven to be a successful sales point for mid-range smartphones in the past. 

Huawei Y3 (2018)

The most capable of the Android Go edition competitors, the Huawei Y3 (2018) packs an even bigger screen at 5”, as well as an improved 8MP rear camera and HD video recording. The screen is the brightest and most vibrant of the three smartphones, but seems to be calibrated to show colours a little more saturated than they actually are. 

Nevertheless, the camera outperforms the other smartphones with good colour replication and great selfie capabilities via the 2MP front camera – far superior to the Nokia 1 despite the same spec. LTE also comes standard with this smartphone and Vodacom throws in 4G/LTE data goodies until the end of September 2018. The battery, however, is not removable and may only be replaced by a warranty technician.

Comparing the 3

All three smartphones have removable back covers, which provide access to the battery, SIM card and SD card slots. The smartphones have Micro USB ports on the bottom with headphone jacks on the top. The built-in speakers all performed well, with the Y3 (2018) housing an exceptionally loud built-in speaker. 

Although all at different price points, all three phones remain similar in performance and speed. The differentiators are apparent in the components, like camera quality and screen quality. It would be fair to rank the quality of the camera and battery life by respective market prices. The Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performed well, for its R399 retail price. The Nokia 1, on the other hand, lags quite a bit in features when compared to the Huawei Y3 (2018), bwith oth retailing at R999.

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SA gets digital archive

As the world entered the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth on Mandela Day, 18 July 2018, South Africa celebrated the launch of a digital living archive. 

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The southafrica.co.za  site carries content about the country’s collective heritage in South Africa’s eleven official languages.

Designed as a nation building,  educational and brand promotion web based tool, the free-to-view platform features award-winning photographic and written content by leading South African photographers, authors, academics and photojournalists.

The emphasis is on quality, credible, factual content that celebrates a collective heritage in terms of the following: Cultural Heritage; Natural Heritage; Education; History; Agriculture; Industry; Mining; and Travel.

At the same time as reflecting on the nation’s history, southafrica.co.za celebrates South Africa’s natural, cultural and economic assets so that the youth can learn about their nation in their home language.

Southafrica.co.za Founder and CEO Hans Gerrizen conceptualised southafrica.co.za as a means for youth and communities from outlying areas to benefit from the digital age in terms of the web tool’s empowering educational component.

“We can only stand to deepen our collective experience of democracy and become a more forward planning nation if we know facts about our nation’s past and present in everyone’s home language,” he says.

Southafrica.co.za, with sister company Siyabona Africa, is the organiser and sponsor of the Mandela: 100 Moments photographic exhibition that runs until 30 September at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront-based Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.  The 3-month exhibition, which runs daily from 08h00 until 15h00, is showcasing one hundred iconic Nelson Mandela images taken by veteran South African photojournalist and self-taught lensman Peter Magubane.

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