Meet disruptive technology data engineer, Benji Meltzer

By Leila Stein

Benji Meltzer is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Aerobotics, a company that uses data analytics and drone technology to provide intelligent tools for farmers across the globe. His work has helped farmers ensure better yields and tree insights.

A born and bred Capetonian, Meltzer made his way through the Herzlia system from Highlands Primary until he matriculated in 2007.

Straight after matric, he went on to study mechatronics engineering at UCT in 2008. It was in these lectures that he first met James Paterson, his Aerobotics co-founder.

“I didn’t grow up knowing I wanted to be an engineer. I just enjoyed maths, science, and technology. I was super-interested in the sort of skills that you build in the process and learning more about it. I kind of got fascinated, specifically in the software and data spaces,” he explains.

After graduation, Meltzer took on work as a consultant in the mining sector. In this position, he built mining operation software to help understand how the mines were doing and how best to optimise production.

“I was focused on analytics and reporting on historical trends of data, and at that time, machine learning and more predictive, forward-looking insights were becoming more and more of a trend,” he says.

“I also worked for Uber, where I ran supplier operations for Sub-Saharan Africa,” he says.

After a few years working in mining, he decided to study for a Master’s degree at the Imperial College of London in neurotechnology, a biomedical engineering specialisation.

During his studies, he focused specifically on the brain, neuroscience, “and understanding if we can become more predictive in diagnosing traumatic brain injury using machine learning,” he explains.

Starting Aerobotics
While at Imperial College, Meltzer’s co-founder, James Paterson, was at MIT in the United States studying Astronautical Engineering.

“We’d always said that we wanted to come back to South Africa to start a business. He was sitting in Boston, and I was in London, and we both noticed that we were surrounded by pretty smart people. But back home, we believed we had access to just as smart people at a fraction of the cost, and it (Cape Town) is a really good place to build a technology business,” he says.

To get the ball rolling, the two began pitching ideas to each other to see where they could best put their energy and expertise.
Eventually, they came up with the concept of Aerobotics, driven mainly by Paterson’s experience on his family’s farm outside of Cape Town.

For the two co-founders, the benefits of drone technology combined with machine learning and analytics provided solutions to the challenges faced by the agriculture sector.

“He saw an opportunity to help farmers become more predictive with things like early problem-detection and diagnosis. So detecting exactly where pests or diseases are on the farm, and being able to suggest what recommendation to take off the back of that,” explains Meltzer.

“The way that we planned to solve it was quite a unique blend of our interests and skill sets. So, from a technical perspective from James’ side, we decided to use aerial imagery from drones, which at the time was a very novel-use case for drones.”

“From my side, my interest was really in taking this data and trying to build some sort of insight off the back of it, to be able to automatically say ‘look this tree is sick, or this one’s not sick. That’s how the business started, and it’s grown from there,” he says.

Agriculture as a key sector
While agriculture may not be the first thought that comes to mind when people think of machine learning or drones, for Meltzer, the sector is ultimately fundamental to human survival.

“I think what interested me about agriculture is that I think [food production] is becoming such a major constraint globally, for example, food security with climate going the way it is. The need to optimise is massive,” he explains.

“I care about domains where there are meaningful problems to solve, and you can actually help people live a better life through this. I think, similar to the medical space. There’s a huge opportunity for technology to be used to improve the way that things work.”

Building off his experience in his Master’s, Meltzer found similarities that ultimately helped him develop the models Aerobotics uses.

“Just completely by chance, a lot of the problems and techniques we use to solve those problems are very similar to those that are used in the medical space. For example, we were looking at brain imagery and using that to determine where there are problems in the brain. Instead of imaging brains and people, we’re looking at trees, but it’s a very similar sort of underlying technology that you use to do that,” he says.

“It’s a really interesting industry to dig into, and I really believe it is needed to improve the way the world works.”

From a garage to a global success
Meltzer and Paterson have made incredible strides since founding the company in 2014. From working in Paterson’s garage in Newlands seven and a half years ago to raising $17 million in Series B funding this year, they have become a global success.

“We recently started growing a lot more quickly. We’ve taken on significant amounts of investment from different companies, and we’re now at around 100 people,” he explains.

While Meltzer aimed to build a viable business, the level of success has been a surprise.

“The plan was to build a successful business, but if I think back to the early days, James and I wanted to make enough money to each buy a motorbike to ride through Africa.”

“It wasn’t really to build some global technology business, and we just wanted to build something new and special and create something. I think we just got the opportunity, and it quickly became clear how big it was and how big the problem was that we were trying to solve. We just realised that there was a much, much broader opportunity.”

Since starting with Paterson’s family farm, the two have taken the company across borders and oceans. Currently, farmers in over eighteen countries are using Aerobotic’s product.

“We’re focusing almost entirely on growing that market. We are in places like Australia, Portugal and others, but the real opportunity right now, we feel, is in the U.S,” he says.

Just the beginning
Alongside expansion into other regions, when it comes to Aerobotic’s technology, Meltzer sees even more use cases on the horizon.

“We’re just touching the surface. Currently, we can measure the performance or the state of the farm. We can measure on a tree by tree basis how that tree is doing, down to being able to estimate how many fruits are on a tree, which is rich analytics. At the moment, the core customer is the farmer, who use the information to operate and manage some parts of the farm,” he explains.
“What we’re seeing is that there’s a huge opportunity for this information throughout the agricultural supply chain, outside of just the farmers.”

These include areas like banks and insurers. Meltzer sees how, currently, the banks have very little information on the performance of a farm. With this kind of information, they can provide farmers with better financial products.

“Similarly, insurance providers in the financial services space could also offer better products. There are input companies like chemical companies (as well). There’s a drive to become more sustainable and use fewer inputs,” he says.

This is what Meltzer and his team are working on now. This expansion would position them as a data layer that enables transactions between different players in the industry, rather than just a farm management platform.

“That opens enormous opportunity throughout the industry,’ he says.

“We’re just realising that this data is used sort of vertically, in every industry and trying to find out how to capitalise on those.”

With such impressive success in under a decade, it is clear that Meltzer and Aerobotics are innovating the kind of solution-based technology that is needed for a more sustainable, optimised future.

• Published in the PDF edition of the September 2021 issue – Get the PDF here.

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