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Creating the right drone ecosystem in Malaysia
January 13, 2020 News


The Drone Dilemma

The demand for drone services in various industries continue to grow as organisations and government agencies realise the potential of using such technologies. In Malaysia, almost all government agencies claim to have a use case need for drone technology and services. In the private sector, telco companies and oil and gas companies are seeing more cost savings when they employ drone services for their work.

With the demand for drone services increasing, the demand for skills in handling drones are also increasing. Currently, most organisations and agencies are using drone services provided by various organisations in the industry. Be it for mapping or tower inspection or even agriculture purposes. There are many drone services companies in the industry catering to the various services required in the country.

The pricing for drone services often varies depending on the use case. But the problem with outsourcing drone services comes down to compliance and regulation rules. For example, a Telco outsourcing a drone company for inspecting telco towers. How certain can the Telco company be that their data is not leaked out to competitors?

While drone companies offering drone services for various verticals have assured that the data from mapping and such activities are secured, most of these companies are often using drones that are not developed locally. The drones are often of Chinese origin with a few local components added to it to cater to its use case. The problem with this is, the data collected, from the flight path to mapping and such, could be accessed by the drone maker.

Which is why government agencies in the US have grounded all Chinese made drones due to security concerns. In 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security said it had, “strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that date or otherwise abuse that access.”

China’s biggest drone manufacturer, DJI have addressed these concerns saying their drones do not collect data. Yet, there are still concerns regarding this. And in to avoid problems like this in Malaysia, organisations and government agencies are now looking to build and fly their own drones. However, the problem that arises from this is the lack of talents in the industry to operate such drones.


Building a local drone ecosystem

Once there are adequate drone users in Malaysia, the main area of focus would be to develop a proper drone ecosystem in which the drone companies can work together and collaborate with stakeholders on the various verticals available. Currently, there are too many verticals and there is no exact focus or the real value of how much can be derived from drone services.

“Drone Players need to collaborate and master their own verticals. They need to work together and shouldn’t be consuming tech only. We should also produce. Building talent is very important in Malaysia. The more data we process, the more talent we can produce,” commented Dato’ Sri Ganes, Chairman of SG Education Group and Founder of Asia Drone IoT Technologies.

There is a need to improvise the system. Looking at drone delivery, for example, Ganes pointed out that why food delivery using a drone would not be the best use case to work on. Instead, he believed that the focus of delivery should be more than just food. It can be used for delivery of goods, used for delivering medical aid and other more important use cases.

Referring to MyDroneEx, an event on drones by Futurise last year, he pointed out how some agencies did not have a full understanding of how the industry works and the importance of having a drone ecosystem.

“Futurise are not focused on drone technology areas. They are not collaborating enough with local drone companies.”

Creating a drone ecosystem for Ganes would also mean going back to the basics whereby Malaysian companies design and build drones from scratch instead of just reselling drones from overseas. He explained that there are already several local companies that are designing and building their own drones. Most of the parts are available and assembled locally with only certain parts being imported in.

Also, he cleared up on the concerns on funding for drone technology, saying most local drone companies normally are self-funded or received funding from private entities. What they really want is the support from the government and related agencies like Futurise, MAGIC and MDEC. These agencies need to collaborate with local drone companies.


Drone upskilling

Having a drone ecosystem will not be complete without the right amount of skills. Companies flying own drones would require having the right talents to work on it as well. The average drone requires about three personnel to handle it; a pilot to fly the drone, one person to have a line of sight on the drone and one person to check the data from the drone. Some may even opt for just two people to use the drones.

The problem with this is that currently, there is a shortage of skills in handling, flying and maintaining drone equipment. While drones used for security surveillance by the police and military personnel would have their own talents managing them, other industries still don’t. In fact, almost all government agencies in Malaysia seem to own drones, but they don’t have the right amount of skills to handle them.

This is where the development of drone skills comes in. Drone training centre SG Education Group is one of the few Malaysian training companies that are able to train and reskill the workforce on the usage of drones. The institute which started training services a couple of years ago currently has produced about 80 certified drone operators and are currently training about 60 of them.

Ganes said they aim to upskill the workforce as per industry requirements. He explained that the problem in Malaysia is that everyone is fascinated with drones and want to be part of it, but, not everyone truly understands the technology.

“Malaysia can be a global player in the drone industry because we have the brains and the talent. We are able to build over our drones, patent them and use them properly without relying on drones from other countries. Foreign drone manufacturers can get your data, which is why US has taken the steps to prohibit certain drone manufacturers in their government agencies. In India, it is very hard to fly or test drones. Now, they are building their own hybrid drones to protect their data.”

He added that for drones, only 20% of the work for most drones is in-field application. The data which makes the remaining 80% is what matters most. In order to be in control of the industry, Ganes pointed out that being in control of the flight controller matters the most. This is because most companies, local and abroad are able to design and create drone models, but not all of them can create their own flight controller system. And the flight controller system is what matters most in any drone.


Regulating drones

To have the right ecosystem and skillset, there also needs to be the right amount of regulations for drones. Current regulations indicate that any drone weighing more than 250 grams and above need to be registered. According to Ganes, there have been more than 50 incidents involving drones, but no further action can be taken as there is no act, which is why the government is looking into fixing this.

At the same time, the law should be able to differentiate between commercial and recreational drones. Today, drones are available cheaply in the market for recreational purposes. But there are not enough rules regulating them. Ganes felt the Civil Authority of Malaysia has to spearhead this initiative with the relevant ministries. Only then can drones be taken seriously.

The regulations would link to airspace access, altitude as well as payload limits for drones being used for delivery. In Malaysia right now, drones are being used in the agricultural industry for fertilisation of crops. Drones are also being used by telco companies for inspection of towers, for mapping as well as surveillance. Each use case should have regulations that suit them.

Using the example of drones for delivery, Ganes said there should be rules on the amount of payload allowed on these drones. Only once the rules and regulations are set will the ecosystem work properly.

While Singapore is leading in drone use cases and regulations, Ganes added that other ASEAN countries are beginning to catch up as well. He hopes Malaysian drone companies and government agencies will start taking the drone industry more seriously and not just continue in the bandwagon without any direction.