This Philippine Start-up Creates Flying Robots to Help Solve Local Problems
From precision agriculture to damage assessment after a disaster
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
For Matthew Cua and his team of geodetic, software and computer engineers, having their heads up in the clouds is pretty much standard operating procedure.
The CEO and founder of award-winning Philippine start-up SkyEye Analytics, Inc., a company that manufactures and deploys customized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones, leads a team that caters to an increasing number of public and private sector collaborators that continue “to explore how to make drones bring value to the lives of consumers and businesses.”
When SkyEye started as Cua’s university research project in 2009, the use of drones were primarily confined to either military surveillance or aerial photography. “We started SkyEye as a technology looking for a solution. Drones were known to be helpful but it was unclear then whether they could be used outside of these two realms,” he says.
Turns out there’s plenty. Today, the use of drones is gaining traction in Southeast Asia, with entrepreneurs like Cua providing services that appeal to local markets in many ways.
From fisherfolk to farmers
Veering away from events—as in aerial photography and videography—where a small pool of Philippine drone providers compete, SkyEye has its, well, eye on bigger things. The team is working on drone applications in fields as wide-ranging as agriculture, disaster mitigation, land surveying and titling, flood control analysis, and infrastructure development. “We believe drones can be catalysts for change in the daily lives of people,” says Cua.
SkyEye first explored UAV application in the aquaculture space as part of Cua’s thesis in the Ateneo de Manila University. Home to the world’s fifth longest coastline, as well as 94 freshwater lakes that cover 208,000 hectares of water, the Philippines relies heavily on water resources for the health and livelihood of millions of Filipinos. Lake Palakpakin in San Pablo, Laguna was the team’s test bed under the Ateneo Innovation Center (AIC). Their drones became the tool that eventually banded the local fishing community together.
“We used drones to help the community understand that they’re overfishing,” relates Cua. Through high-resolution drone imagery, Cua’s team was able to monitor the lake for fish kills and determine how fish pens were congesting the lake. Presented with hard data, the local fisherfolk themselves decided to manage and eliminate a number of fish pens to save the ecosystem.
SkyEye is playing in the field of precision agriculture as well, where they’re keen on exploring ways to help Philippine farmers enhance their productivity. In collaboration with the AIC and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), SkyEye complemented the WWF’s ground NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) measurements with the deployment of its low-cost near-infrared system drone prototype “which tracks which plots of land in a farm are behind harvest. We spot that and then see how we can intervene,” explains Cua of their ongoing project in Northern Luzon.
Drone technology spells great potential for precision agriculture in the Philippines, where the government’s comprehensive agrarian reform initiative grants landless farmers and farmworkers ownership of agricultural lands. Most of these farmers live a hand-to-mouth existence—something Cua hopes to change with SkyEye’s technology. “A lot of these farms find it hard to mechanize the farming process—maybe our drones can be the way for them to mechanize and become better agriculturists in a much cheaper way,” he says.
SkyEye’s drones were also a crucial tool in the field of damage assessment. When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, their drones were deployed to assess the severity of damage in the coconut industry.
“Haiyan wiped out most of Samar and Leyte, where coconuts comprise their core industry. We were asked to identify where the fallen coconut trees were, what were the damages, and figure out the costs of that. There has never been an inventory done before that, and the data we got enabled our partner, the Visayan State University, to learn the scale of the recovery and rehabilitation efforts needed to revitalize the coconut industry in Leyte,” says Cua, adding that their drones were also deployed to get an initial overview of the damages wrought by the typhoon and to identify where aid was needed. To this day, SkyEye continues to map the hard hit areas.
Target market versus target needs
With such wide-ranging applications, Cua asserts SkyEye doesn’t necessarily cater to a specific target market. “Our clients are very diverse—sometimes it’s huge property developers leveraging our drones for land surveying or local governments in infrastructure development. Sometimes it’s a rich family who just wants something surveyed,” he says.
Instead of confining the business to a specific target market, SkyEye looks at target needs—pain points across different sectors that need to be addressed. These days, the SkyEye team is busy with projects that involve land surveying and land titling. “We’re using drones to quicken the pace of land titling, which has always been a challenge in the Philippines. Land rights and land access are major issues here, making it hard for big ticket infrastructure projects to come online,” says Cua.
Another potential market they are exploring to scale business operations? “Eastern Europe and Latin America. Again, we’re looking at market needs,” he says, “and as far as the surveying side of our business, where the demand is, that’s where we’re heading.”