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Imagine being on a farm. Somewhere, the soil is too wet or too dry. Somewhere else, the crop may need fertiliser or pesticide. Imagine the challenge for a farmer to tell which crops are healthy or have damage without walking every square foot of the farm. If only they have eyes in the sky overlooking their crops – or a drone. Drones are revolutionising agriculture and it looks like this may be the new future of agricultural produce.
With the help of aerial data, drones can provide farmers with digital data to improve efficiency. Enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT), drones help to gather accurate data and relay it back to a cloud server or some other analytics service. Today, the application of drone technology can be seen in oil palm plantations and paddy fields.
Flying at the forefront of Malaysia’s drone agriculture industry is Poladrone Solutions Sdn. Bhd. Founded in 2016, with an initial focus on drone photography, the local drone start-up has since evolved. It has now created its niche in the development and deployment of drones to address agricultural pest problems. Its founder and chief executive officer, Cheong Jin Xi said drone technology would generate greater crop yield by analysing multispectral data and creating prescription maps for flight missions.
“With our web-based software and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that are optimised for drone data processing, we can extract relevant information from photographs fast and accurately, such as crop health. These algorithms aid in the automation of the typically time-consuming analytics process” said Cheong. Detecting diseases or issues is critical as it allows farmers to take preventative measures to avoid them from spreading and causing more damage to their crops, he added.
A catalyst for sustainable agriculture
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the whole economy, including agriculture. Border closures have reduced workforce supply. Plantations are faced with the problem of lack of workforce for plantation management. “One of the biggest labour constraints right now especially with the current pandemic situation is that the plantations simply don’t have enough workers to apply pesticides or herbicides.”
“That is one of the key things that we are solving right now where we are currently building our drones locally, to deliver automated high-precision spot spraying for oil palms,” he said while adding that this would reduce waste and also chemical exposure to the environment. Poladrone has developed two drone models for the agriculture industry focusing on automation and future-proof technology; Oryctes and Mist Drone.
Traditionally, pesticides are sprayed manually through a backpack or tractor-mounted spraying methods. According to Cheong, the use of drones outperforms manual backpack and tractor spraying methods in terms of efficiency: “Based on time efficiency measurements, a team operating a unit of Oryctes drone will cover more hectares per day compared to manual labour.”
“Moreover, with a manual spray, you can’t record or trace exactly how much pesticides are used, whereas, for drones, everything is recorded,” he added. Aside from that, drone usage also helps address concerns about the hazardous effect of the direct exposure of harmful chemicals to the workers handling the spraying work. The pandemic also sheds light on how the agriculture industry has heavily relied on foreign labour to conduct the 3D tasks – dirty, dangerous and demeaning.
Cheong foresees the benefits of drone technology on job upskilling will be substantial as more industries, not only the agriculture sectors, realise the importance of automation through drones. “In the longer term, as more companies start to use drones and this has already started to happen in Western countries, the number of people that you need to assign to a single task would definitely go down and people would then be able to focus on a much higher value job instead,” he said.
The economic implications of drone use are undeniable. The global drone service market is expected to reach RM267.4 billion (US$64.12 billion) by 2025. Cheong highlights that the regional drone industry is growing at around 40 to 50 percent in terms of revenues, purchases and volumes. “Surprisingly, Malaysia is ranked very high among APEC countries for the purchase of drones. We ranked slightly just behind Australia and ahead of all the other Southeast Asian countries.”
“This means that within Malaysia, the adoption of drone tech is a lot higher than all the other countries in Southeast Asia, even higher than countries like Indonesia and Thailand where the population is so much larger,” he added. Poladrone also distributes drones for DJI Enterprise, the largest drone manufacturer in the world based in China.
The pie is big enough for everyone
Through the National Technology and Innovation Sandbox Program (NTIS), Poladrone has been able to work closely with regulatory bodies and key stakeholders to accelerate the adoption of drone technology in Malaysia. NTIS, supported by the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), is a key player in providing a sandbox for new technologies and start-ups, assisting them with capacity building, market access, funding, test environment facilitation, and regulatory assessment.
The commercialisation funding that Poladrone received through NTIS is being used for the hiring of manpower, purchase of raw materials for drones and facilitating his operational costs. Besides NTIS funding, the company also received Business Start-Up fund from MTDC.
While the application of drone technology is still new in Malaysia’s agriculture industry, the demand is gaining steep traction. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Poladrone has grown four times from 20 staff at the start of last year to now 80 people. The feedback from their clients has been highly positive, and the company is trying to scale up fast enough to meet the demand.
“There is definitely a demand, and we can’t scale fast enough to cater to them. Even from a single client, itself, they ask us to take up contracts covering thousands of hectares. Still, we can’t manage and scale fast enough at the moment,” said Cheong while adding that it is not the right time to compete with each other within the local industry as the market is growing at a rapid rate.
For this reason, Poladrone is also working with other local service providers to build a niche in the drone agriculture ecosystem, catering to the industry’s demand. “Quite often we are working together with other companies to serve the same clients. Especially when you talk about an oil palm player, Sime Darby Plantation – to service their entire estate, and they have over 600,000 hectares of estates, and it would take more than one company to do it. Any company that tries to take on an entire contract will probably choke on it as it is just too big,” he said.
“The pie is huge, and the market is growing much faster than anyone can support at the moment. The good thing with palm oil is that even though it’s a niche, it’s a huge niche market where the GDP export for palm oil last year was almost RM100 billion. It is by no means a small market for us to play,” he added. Apart from the drone-based solutions they offer, Poladrone also serves as a product provider to equip other companies with the technology to conduct more projects and generate revenue streams.
The start-up is currently looking at setting up 15 3S (sales, service and spare parts) centres to service their customers in key agriculture towns across Malaysia by the end of next year. Based in Cyberjaya, the digital economy hub of Malaysia, Poladrone currently has three other branches in Bintulu, Sarawak; Kluang, Johor; and now setting up their fourth 3S centre in Perak.
“The 3S centres work like a car sales showroom where customers can walk in to purchase or test out drones. With ready-stock spare parts, customers can also have their drones serviced and maintained,” he said. Cheong explained further that drones for agriculture work very differently from consumer videography drones, where agriculture drones fly on an average of five to six hours, every day, six days a week.
“Parts would wear out and need repair and maintenance. To maintain airworthiness, there is a set schedule of maintenance that customers do have to follow, and that’s where the 3S centres come in. Instead of customers having to worry about aircraft maintenance, they can pass it over to us to do it,” he added.
Poladrone is looking at not only changing the drone tech scene in Malaysia but also regionally. Having already established an office based in Bangkok, Thailand, Poladrone serves regional clientele with different agriculture crops such as paddy, sugarcane and cassava. The company also plans to spread their wings to Indonesia in the next 18 months. “Indonesia is a huge market for us, especially the oil palm market. However, with COVID-19, international expansion has to be quite difficult, with all the travel restrictions and health risks” he added.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to adapt at speed. Even during the economic slowdown, there is a growing interest in drones as companies turn to technology for sustainable solutions. Accelerating the adoption of emerging technologies in traditional industries like agriculture is also in line with Malaysia’s Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to boost the income and well-being of target groups, including farmers and agro-based entrepreneurs. With adequate training in the usage of drones, this will be a significant push toward sustainability and transformation in the country’s agriculture landscape.
Indeed, the future of possibilities is here.