Tuesday 26 Sep 2023
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 26, 2022 - January 1, 2023

In the past, automobiles revolutionised the transport sector and, subsequently, positively impacted the global economy. Today, the same can be said about the drone industry, which is pre-programmed to complete specific missions in a bid to automate labour-intensive tasks while helping industries grow.

Demand for drone capabilities has been widely focused on services such as package delivery for food items and pharmaceutical products, and retail applications, which will be further enabled by technological advancements.

Based on feedback from drone tech ecosystem players and stakeholders, as well as data from the Malaysia Aerospace Industry Association 2021, the drone industry is set to contribute RM50.71 billion to Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

“Drone technology’s impact on the GDP will be in terms of higher productivity, yield and cost savings (subsidies) within sectors such as agriculture, construction and services,” says Dzuleira Abu Bakar, CEO of Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI). 

Other uses for drone technology include inspecting critical assets for defects, border patrol for national security and precision agricultural services, serving as an alternative to manual and labour-intensive processes that are typically carried out in high-danger areas. 

“We foresee the most growth coming from agriculture, infrastructure and security surveillance in the coming year. It is anticipated that our oil palm plantations will require 75,000 to 150,000 drones in operations to help increase yield and productivity within the sector,” says Dzuleira. 

“The huge market demand in this sector will drive innovation and growth by drone companies to further expand their solutions across other industries.”

Aerodyne Ventures Sdn Bhd is witnessing exponential growth in the agriculture sector, where there has been numerous technological progressions. With a rising population, socio-economic gaps and supply chain disruptions, solving food security is more critical than ever and drones will help tackle these crises, says Kamarul A Muhamed, founder and CEO of Aerodyne.

Advanced air mobility technology is rethinking the logistics and transport sector by using large, autonomous, pilotless aerial vehicles for things like medical delivery, disaster management and search and rescue. This will lead to significant reductions in cost and time while improving safety.

Currently, Argentavis, Aerodyne’s drone delivery solution, utilises a remote fleet management system so users can track their order status and monitor the live progress of drone deliveries via its mobile app and web-based platform.

Clearing the hurdles

Given the importance of technology in the drone ecosystem, it needs to be constantly updated for drone players to stay competitive. This presents a challenge for those in the drone ecosystem as the technology keeps changing — what works today might not work tomorrow. 

Advances in key areas like Internet of Things (IoT) and autonomous flight enable new methods of transport of goods, while allowing industries, companies and solutions to scale worldwide. The next step in drone technology is to be fully powered by artificial intelligence (AI), observes Kamarul. 

“AI will become so intuitive that drones will not only be situationally aware at all times, but can also adapt to changing variables in order to fulfil mission requirements. The process of transferring human intelligence will go beyond data capture. [Drones] will be able to autonomously inspect, conduct repair and undertake remedial work with human-level contextualisation,” says Kamarul. 

The 2022-2030 Malaysian Drone Tech­nology Action Plan (MDTAP) has identified several areas that need addressing — talent, funding, market access, innovation, commercialisation and regulation. Talent supply and adoption of new technologies are highlighted as priorities. 

“Every leader is responsible to retain talent, not just the government. We need to stand united to inspire our youth to explore technological advancements and aspire to make a difference for Malaysia.

“We also want to develop highly skilled talent who aspire to advance the drone industry in Malaysia,” says Dzuleira, adding that MRANTI’s MakersLab is open to those who are interested to learn more about 3D design, drones, programming, and electrical and electronics as well as a space for innovators to materialise their ideas. 

An important part of the development of the drone industry is appropriate regulations. To foster safer skies, all drone users must be registered in the system and regulations have to be set to enforce this, says Muhamad Ikman Anif, founder and CEO of LOOKA Group Sdn Bhd, the provider of a digital platform solution for drone permit registration and monitoring service. LOOKA aims to create safer skies for drones by locally producing unmanned traffic management systems.

“We need to acknowledge that drones are another mode of transport, just like cars. As important as it is for governments to provide safe roads for cars, the same situation should apply for drones,” says Muhamad Ikman.

“A safer space for drones can be made, provided that a complete framework for drone operations is constructed, together with adequate rules and regulations that must be followed by all drone operators.”

Following drone tech industry dialogues with the National Technology and Inno­vation Sandbox (NTIS) last year, the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM) launched three civil aviation directives to address risks and security issues in drone operations. NTIS works closely with CAAM to ensure safety and regulatory compliance in several sandbox sites, and on requirements and procedures for the organisation of remote pilot training, agriculture drone operations and facilitation of several unmanned aerial vehicle projects. 

“Amendments to the current unmanned aircraft system regulations won’t be [done] so soon but we’re hoping that it can be finalised in the next three years,” notes Dzuleira.

With the growing number of approved training organisations and remote training pilot organisations in Malaysia with remote pilots being certified, a solid regulatory framework and a standardised curriculum approved by CAAM will provide greater confidence for organisations and industries to increase investments in drone technology, adds Kamarul.

Government gives thumbs up to drone tech development

The government realises the potential of the drone industry and has put in place plans and road maps to nurture the industry. The MDTAP was launched to support the drone ecosystem while fostering transparency, accountability and inclusiveness of the drone industry in Malaysia, with the aim of creating 100,000 job opportunities.

“The 100,000 jobs will not only come from the drone companies themselves but also sectors that employ drone tech; for example, construction, agriculture and even the drone sports sector,” says Dzuleira.

MRANTI also commissioned a study on the ecosystem, leading to the Drone Ecosystem Strategic Roadmap (DESR) that formed the basis of the MDTAP. There are eight main missions outlined in MDTAP in which MRANTI is responsible for. Among the missions is developing a competent and skilled workforce that meets the needs of the drone tech industry. 

In the same timeline, Malaysia aims to have five global drone tech leaders and be among the top 10 in the world for drone readiness and adoption. Aerodyne Group, Meraque Services Sdn Bhd and Aonic are Malaysian drone start-ups and among the world’s top drone service providers.

“So far, more than 200 drone technology companies have been identified in Malaysia. Currently, larger Malaysian drone technology companies have collectively hired more than 1,000 drone talents and professionals,” says Dzuleira. 

Several national initiatives have been lined up to bolster the growth of the drone ecosystem, such as NTIS. Through NTIS, drone companies test their solutions in a live environment with regulatory, commercialisation and technology support. A total of 25 drone companies have been approved in various sandbox partner initiatives over the past 18 months. 

MRANTI has provided about RM10 million in funding to 19 Malaysian drone companies from 2020 to 2022 through NTIS. The majority are from agriculture while the rest are in medical delivery, infrastructure and security surveillance, among others. 

“Through the sandbox, drones will undergo stress testing in actual environment settings for spraying, mapping, plant analysis, warehousing and many more activities. From these, better case studies and adaptive regulations can be developed to drive innovation,” says Dzuleira.

Furthermore, five acres of Technology Park Malaysia’s (TPM) Area 57 drone excellence centre is slated to be completed in 2023. It will come equipped with facilities like a 100m drone runway, 300m square drone netting, drone testing mock-up sites, prototype developing manufacturing equipment and a services and maintenance workshop. 

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