Drones — beyond a flying camera

Regulators should fine-tune the policy soon as drones are set to make a big wave in the next couple of years, says expert

by SHAHEERA AZNAM SHAH/ pic by BERNAMA

DRONES recently made headlines in neighbouring Singapore, as drone sightings disrupted flights at Changi Airport twice in a week.

Fearing midair collision, runways were closed, affecting 63 flights.

In the event of a collision, the effect could be catastrophic as a drone could puncture an aircraft’s wings or get sucked into its engines, causing the engines to shut down and the aircraft to lose control.

Despite all that, in Malaysia, hobbyists and enthusiasts described the country’s regulations on drones as “too stringent” and “impractical”, as they believe the device can offer a lot of social goods.

Futurise Centre CEO Mahadhir Aziz (picture) said it would be a loss for a country to deny people from flying drones.

“It would be a loss for the ecosystem and job creation, considering the potential for mechanical and aeronautical engineers.

“The technology will eventually become cheaper. It once required human intervention, but is now autonomous and they are not just flying one drone at a time anymore,” he said.

Futurise, a subsidiary under the Finance Ministry, is currently managing the application and technological advancements of the flying device.

Regulators Have Some Catching-up to Do

Although Malaysia still opens its airspace to drones, it is done with restrictions, heavily guided operations and impractical regulations.

According to Mahadhir, it requires approval from five different regulators — the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM), Department of Survey and Mapping Malaysia (Jupem), Malaysian Aviation Commission (Mavcom), Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), and Transport Ministry (MoT) — just for a person to fly a drone camera.

While the stringent requirement is lauded for addressing safety issues, in hindsight, the full application of drones is being deprived.

“The concern of flying a drone is the use of airspace. Who would give me permission if I want to fly a drone?

“On top of that, there are many owners who do not register their drones, and what about the do-it-yourself ones where the specifications have been altered?” he questioned.

To overcome this, Futurise is organising a discussion series among regulators to address the country’s muddling state of the drone industry.

“The laws that we have now are either too stringent or lack enforcement. As a result, many people are breaking the rules.

“For example, Mavcom is applying the same law that revolves around the airline industry to drones. They cannot hide behind their law and say that it is the only regulation that they have. “So, we are getting them to design a new ruling or policy, or even a modification of the current one.
“Also, to make a one-stop centre to ease the process of approval for drone flyers,” he said.

Drones No Longer Just for Hobbyists

While the scope of drone application is wide, Mahadhir expects the device to replace dangerous, dirty and difficult labour, or known as 3D jobs, as more companies have been rapidly adopting drones into their operations.

“Particularly in industries where the labour falls under the 3D job category, drones can be used to replace manpower.

“It will at first be heavily adopted by companies and eventually, when drones become cheaper and safer for public use, its application will be wider.

“In fact, many people have created jobs out of the device like wedding photography and surveillance services,” he said.

Citing examples of companies, he said Sime Darby Plantation Bhd has been using drones as a tool to count trees at its estates, while Tenaga Nasional Bhd uses drones to monitor its power and electrical lines.

Gliding through not only airspace, specifically designed underwater drones are being used by oil and gas (O&G) firms for regular monitoring of their pipelines around oil fields.

While the technology has been monetised by companies to extend their profit, the device could also be put to good use in distributing medical supplies to rural and remote areas.

Currently, Futurise is facilitating an intercountry disaster mitigation project in Malaysia, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka to chart the representation of an area for simulation practice.

“The use of a helicopter in a search and rescue mission makes more sense since it has the capacity to transport people and does not need permission to fly.

“However, it is expensive if (it’s) only (used) for a mapping job. A drone is just an easy alternative,” he said.

Food Delivery to Rely on Drones

For busy city dwellers, the invention of food delivery is a boon to their tight schedule.

It is common for food chains to offer delivery services for the purpose of a swift service and to minimise table usage.

Start-ups like Grab and Foodpanda have made it possible for meals to arrive at our doorsteps, however, one local company has taken this service a notch higher with the use of drones.

Average Drone Sdn Bhd is currently experimenting with its drones that are specifically engineered to serve the purpose of transporting certain loads from one point to another.

Initially an initiative to deliver medical supplies to rural areas, CEO Hamdee Hamdan (picture) is exploring the food and beverage sector to find the drones’ commercial value.

He began the company in 2013 by selling drones “off the shelf” until he realised that the device can be made into something more than just a flying object.

Now, 70% of drones available at his store are manufactured by Average Drone, a team of engineers from various backgrounds, including from the aviation and aeronautical industry.

“We started building our own drones and cater towards what the market wants.

“For example, a customer came looking for a drone that could fly above the open sea.

“Normal drones could not do that due to strong wind. We designed one from scratch and saw it through to production,” he said.

Hamdee said the company is generating RM15 million a year from servicing mostly government agencies and ministries by designing and producing drones based on their needs.

Average Drone has secured RM120 million worth of contracts for the next three years.

The Hype on ‘Nasi Lemak Drone’

Since demonstrating its service at the Malaysia Drone Expo in Cyberjaya in June, Hamdee’s plans to deliver food using drones have caught global headlines as it is not common in other countries.

“It has become a public interest and the hype I received was immense. The exposure that we got was quite humorous because the idea started out as a means to transport medical supplies,” Hamdee said.

For nine months starting July, Average Drone will be flying out three six-propeller and eight-propeller drones to selective residents in Cyberjaya during the trial period.

The drones will be flown to designated destinations, bringing a load of 800g within a 2km radius from Futurise’s headquarters.

“Cyberjaya is a good place to start, giving its reputation as a tech city, and the residents are very receptive towards this kind of technology.

“Futurise will help in getting approval from the Mavcom, MoT and MCMC, while we will be handling the approval from CAAM and Jupem,” Hamdee said.

While many rooted for Hamdee’s idea, some had their reservations.

“When we were going through the feedback, as much as I want people to accept it, there were some scepticism because they have not seen it done before.

“This type of delivery has a lot of potential as drones can play a vital role in serving rural or remote areas,” he said.

However, commercialising it could be a hassle considering the noise pollution caused by the device, and the safety and security issues.

Admitting that regulations are still in a hazy area, Hamdee said regulators should fine-tune the policy soon, as drones are set to make a big wave in the next couple of years.

“Our industry is still relatively small compared to Indonesia in terms of demand and ecosystem.

“For example, Indonesia can issue a flying permit within a day, and it is done by only one department. Our application will take two weeks and we often have to bounce between agencies.

“In fact, industry players and drone makers are ready to make Malaysia a global hub. It has been proven that we have the expertise through the products that we build,” he said.