TECHNOLOGY

Are Drones the Answer to Gaps in Malaysia’s Oil Palm Industry?

How Poladrone is monitoring plantations from the skies

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BY Ezra Ferraz - 29 Mar 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

One of the more interesting drone start-ups in Southeast Asia is Malaysia’s Poladrone. According to founder and CEO Jin Xi Cheong, Poladrone addresses inefficiencies in plantations of oil palm—which are used in the production of palm oil—by helping farmers collect and analyze data using drones.

The oil palm industry is in a state of crisis, since global demand for the material far outstrips supply, even with vast spans of rainforest being cleared every year to make more and more plantations. This situation is untenable and leads to many major problems.

“Efficiency within oil palm plantations remains low due to the sheer scale of the plantations making simple tasks, such as workforce monitoring, infrastructure maintenance, inventory management, and detection of diseases a complex and expensive operation,” Cheong explains.

Using commercial drones - typically from the DJI Phantom series - that the farmers own, Poladrone pre-plans the flight paths remotely, before loading them onto the drones. At the plantation, the farmer then selects the drone’s flight path, which then takes off automatically and collects the data that is then uploaded to Poladrone’s servers for processing.

“By removing the need of travelling into the plantations, we’re able to offer a service at a much lower cost and encourage regular monitoring of plantations,” he says, explaining what differentiates Poladrone from other drone companies who may provide similar services.

The most typical use cases for Poladrone are performing land area measurement and tree count, though the company encourages farmers to partake in regular monitoring as it allows them to track the plantation’s progress and make valuable recommendations.

Poladrone has also yielded itself to surprising use cases. After a flood hit one of their partner plantations, most of its areas were under water, with routes and bridges cut off. At the edge of the plantation, Poladrone’s client was able to monitor the changing conditions inside the flooded plantation.

“With the information on hand, we were able to analyze areas where the water is receding faster and identify an access route,” Cheong says, pointing out, “This was particularly interesting as we did not expect our product to be used this way.”

Poladrone charges based on the land area covered by the drone on a monthly basis. “We adopted a monthly subscription model as we want to encourage plantations to regularly collect data whereby it allows more accurate insights to be derived. We also offer once-off data processing and analysis at a significantly higher cost per land area,” Cheong says.

As of the moment, Poladrone is currently working with three private plantations and has 10 more large clients in the pipeline. Cheong is staggering their roll-out only because Poladrone is currently participating in the Reimagine Drone, an incubator in Barcelona, Spain, so they cannot provide full attention to customers due to the geographic distance.

 

The drone industry in Southeast Asia

Getting to this point was not easy. When Poladrone first started, Cheong shared that they set out to develop their own drone, before realizing they could just use a commercially available drone to achieve the same results.

Cheong is quick to own up to Poladrone’s mistakes in the hope that others in the space might learn from them.

“It’s also important to point out that in software start-ups, getting a line of code wrong normally just leads to an ‘oops’ and frustration, but when dealing with flying hardware, getting something wrong (which we did more than we like to admit) means seeing our hard work crashing into the ground and forking out more money for repairs,” he says.

Even if Poladrone is now deploying commercial drones, some plantations may not be open to the service itself. Some plantation owners openly question whether the technology can even improve their business.

“To address this, we provide a trial period for our software processing up to 150 acres. For large[r] plantations, we would also be open to conducting a proof of concept with them to demonstrate the technology,” Cheong says.

He feels that the drone industry in Southeast Asia is still very much in its nascent stages. “This means that we are at the point now that most customers don’t fully understand and know what they want,” he says, as an encouragement for entrepreneurs to get their products out there into the market, since customers may not know they need it until they see it.

Looking beyond the drone industry, Cheong wants to challenge people who want to do hardware start-ups but complain about the lack of funds. While he concedes you need some capital to get started, he argues that hardware start-ups can stay relatively lean.

He used Poladrone as an example. They’ve started almost a year ago and have built multiple drones of various sizes, all without incurring any rental or lab expenses.

“We easily saved tens of thousands by bouncing around co-working spaces, incubators, and Makerspaces. We bounced through 5 offices across 3 cities and 3 incubators (Founder Institute, Second Startup, Reimagine Drone) but spent nothing on rental and lab fees,” he says.