Modernisation in the agriculture sector is taking root with the use of drones and robotics technology, leading to more sustainable farming and reduced dependence on manual labour for certain tasks.
Mata Aerotech Sdn Bhd chief executive officer (CEO) Wan Azrain Adnan said there was growing interest from big agriculture players and government agencies regionally on using drones in the plantation sector.
“The oil palm industry facesashortage of labour as the work is labour intensive. Precision agriculture is the future of farming. Drone and robotics technology definitely help to reduce the dependency on labour,” he told the New Straits Times recently.
He said oil palm companies could use drones to take images of their plantation area and, with the necessary software, calculate how many trees there were in the estate, instead of sending people to count manually.
“This will save time and cost as it is fast and efficient. Plant counting is important to detect how many trees are alive so that they can calculate how much fertiliser and pesticide are needed.”
He said the agriculture sector’s modernisation using robotics is in its infancy, and more effort needs to be taken to educate and promote the idea to industry players. The company recently offered the drone application services at oil palm estates and covered 200,000ha.
Pemandu associate executive vice-president Ku Kok Peng said there was potential in using drones in the oil palm sector to identify nutrient deficiency in the trees.
“Then it can deploy the right type and amount of nutrients required for the trees specifically,” he said.
Industry sources said there were about 1,000 drones (averaging from RM100,000 to RM250,000 each) in operation commercially, while a few thousand drones were in recreational use nationwide.
Aerodyne Geospatial Sdn Bhd founder and group CEO Kamarul Muhamed, whose company provides drone-based managed solutions globally, said Malaysia had a market size of about RM500 million for commercial use of drone services, particularly in the agriculture sector.
Bloomberg reported the agricultural industries accounted for more than a quarter of the US$2.67 billion in commercial drone sales in 2016, according to Allied Market Research, and demand will expand 22 per cent a year, reaching US$2.44 billion by 2022.
Delaware-based Market Study Report LLC has forecast worldwide drone sales to agricultural businesses topping US$8 billion by 2026.
Muda Agricultural Development Authority (Mada) had operated 10 drones since 2017 in a pilot project, covering
about 2,000ha of padi fields in Kedah with an allocation of RM1 million.
The agency introduces new technologies and machines to farmers, helping them to increase their yield while reducing their production cost and solving labour shortage issues.
“We require about 500 drones to fully cover our 100,000ha of padi fields. Up to now, our farmers have adopted drone technology provided by independent drone services providers,” said a Mada spokesman.
A World Bank report on Malaysia’s experience in agriculture transformation and inclusive growth said the sector’s productivity is less than half of high-income country averages, highlighting the urgent need for reforms and expanding the sector’s contribution to the country’s development.
The report said Malaysia’s success in agriculture could serve as a case study for many emerging economies and more effort was needed if Malaysia was going to have an agricultural sector reflective of a developed economy.
“New technologies that are incorporated into the entire value chain should be the catalyst for modernisation of the industry, making it more productive and efficient while enhancing growth and value addition,” he said in his keynote address at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s International Palm Oil Congress and Exhibition 2019 last month.
Azrain said drone application in the agriculture sector should be regulated by the government, particularly the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM).
He said CAAM could promote safety and sustainability of the drone industry, for instance, by implementing mandatory licensing for commercial drones and drone pilot licences.