Addressing agricultural pain points with tech

  • Services more than 20 oil palm estates throughout Malaysia, including East Malaysia
  • Concern over recent Department of Civil Aviation crackdown on illegal drone flying

 

Addressing agricultural pain points with tech

 

THE agricultural sector in Malaysia is not known for its widespread use of technology, but one local company plans to change all that.

Braintree Technologies Sdn Bhd, an IT services company established in 2009, is using drones, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet-of-Things (IoT) and geographic information systems (GIS) technologies to help the plantations industry in Malaysia progress further.

In a recent interview with Digital News Asia, Braintree technical director and chief operations officer Mustaqiim Mohd Abidin (pic) says that their main goal is using technology to address the problems that plantations and other industries currently face.

When asked if the technology and drones were all developed in-house, Mustaqiim says that the drones are assembled in-house, whereas the software, web-apps and AI were developed in-house.

“We also have the off-the-shelf drones but most of them are customised and upgraded to suit different applications or industries.”

He adds that while 70% of their clientele are from the oil palm plantations industry, their services can also be customised for the construction, tourism, other agricultural industries such as rubber plantations and paddy growing, as well as conducting environmental impact analysis (EIA).

Hence the balance 30% of their clientele involve construction firms, EIA, tourism, infrastructures firms (such as those that construct communications tower, railways and roads). 

“Those are still pilot projects,” explains Mustaqiim when asked about implementation for these sectors.

Potential of oil palm plantations

According to Mustaqiim, the company started using AI back in 2009 while working with honey bees.

“We noticed that there were specific plants being selected by bees, so we used satellite imagery then and we begin to see more utility for oil palms, which is a RM60-80 billion a year industry. That’s where the money is. And also, construction and infrastructure,” he says of their decision to venture into the oil palm plantations industry.

Braintree’s signature service is using drones and accompanying technologies such as AI, GIS and IoT to help big plantation companies as well as smallholders solve common problems. For example, the drones can be used for keeping track of planting inventory (allowing for precise tree planting and fertiliser orders), topography and precise terrace planning and bagworm control (precise pesticide spraying using drones).

He adds that all data is viewable on their cloud-based web app, which requires no GIS expertise to use.

The bigger question is, how does having an eye in the sky benefit the oil palm plantations industry’s bottom line?

“For every 10,000 hectares, companies lose RM1.5 million in revenue a year due to 6% to 8% of missing trees, irregular tree density and inaccurate boundaries. This is assuming one hectare has 140 trees; producing about four tonnes average crude palm oil, where one tonne is RM2,700,” he explains.

He adds that the costs of using their services amounts to RM200,000, which saves the companies and smallholders more than RM800,000 based on the above figures.

The drones also help save on labour costs. “One foreign worker charges RM70 for spraying the whole area taking the whole day, we did it in seven minutes using drones,” says Mustaqiim.

He adds that the oil palm plantations industry is currently facing a labour shortage because the value of the ringgit is shrinking.

“We have to go for mechanisation and automation. Our land to labour ratio is roughly 1:10. The country is targeting a 1:20 ratio, but there’s no way to do that without automation. We are nowhere near there, as long as we continue to rely on manual workers, the most we can achieve is a 1:14 ratio,” he explains.

Acceptance from the plantations industry

Despite the benefits that automation can bring to the plantations sector, Braintree’s services were initially met with resistance from its clients in the oil palm plantations sector.

“The plantation growers were not that excited about it. Our first obstacle was to convince them to use the technology. The first time we implemented it, we gave a free demo for two months. We worked on proof of concept for the clients and once they knew our capability, they began to trust us and the technology as well,” explains Mustaqiim.

Despite the initial challenges, today the company services more than 20 oil palm estates throughout Malaysia, including East Malaysia.

Their services have also helped resolve disputes in this industry. “There was once a case in Sarawak, where the estate was 10,000 hectares. There was a dispute between the smallholder and estate manager over the amount of fertiliser provided. We did mapping and discovered that the smallholder had planted beyond the boundaries, hence there was insufficient fertiliser. Hence, we helped them resolve the dispute.”

Funding and the road ahead

According to Mustaqiim, Braintree is currently self-funded, mostly by the company directors. “When we secure projects, those revenues will be also used to roll another project and buy new equipment plus R&D.”

He adds that they are pursuing certain grants at the moment, but are very selective about their external funding.

“Yes, we do need funding to accelerate some of our growth and R&D, but selecting the right one that we are comfortable with is very important for us.”

What are their mid to long-term plans for the company? “Our mid to long-term plans are to expand to the global market, especially in Asean and develop more automation and precise drone-based solutions that cater to pain points in the oil palm and agriculture industry,” he says.

When asked how the fact that the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) is setting up its own enforcement unit to put a stop to illegal drone flying in the country, will impact their business, Mustaqiim replies: “We understand that there should be regulation for safety and environmental friendliness.

“However, we are concerned about the cost of certification that can kill this infant industry. We are already facing tough economic challenges to survive but any additional cost will kill us.” He believes that there should be an industry dialogue before policy implementation.

“To add, basically we've had meetings with the DCA before with regards with this, so we are aware. Our pilots also have passed the DCA drone pilot level 1 course,” he concludes.

 

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