Drones to aid ASEAN’s flight into uncharted territories

From food delivery, medicine carriage, and pest control, drone usage could help open business opportunities.

Indonesians discovered the real benefit of operating drones during the pandemic. A group of drone enthusiasts used these unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver contactless medicines and food to patients isolated at home.

In the Philippines, farmers now are using drones to weed out pests that destroy crops. Singapore is using them to test deliveries of food and Covid kits to ships. While Malaysian police forces have used drones to identify people with high temperatures moving in public places amidst Covid.

A $52 billion global drone market is waiting to be explored. The drone market in Southeast Asia is expected to reach $1,500 million in 2022 alone. With the rise in penetration of drones, individuals and corporations are realising the hidden potential of this device’s usage.

Be it for personal deliveries, agriculture, military monitoring, development projects, or even emergency rescue deliveries, having effective drones makes a world of difference. Having a uniform regulatory regime will help advance the development of the region’s drone industry.

The Thriving Commercial Drone Market in SE Asia

YearMarket (in million US$)
20211003.91
20221499.05
20232154.02
20242900.87
20253667.69

Source: Statista

How will drones benefit the region?

Contrary to popular perception, drones are not just meant for amateur aviation enthusiasts. Yes, that opportunity exists, but the importance of drones extends far beyond entertainment.

Across sectors such as healthcare, e-commerce, defence, agriculture, and power projects, deploying drones could prove advantageous.

Take power projects, for example. Drones could be used as a tool for surveys and mapping for projects. Currently, the traditional way of data collection is time-consuming because of geographical restrictions. Data is collected manually and surveying mountainous regions is challenging. Here, unmanned aerial vehicles can bridge the gap, considering the fact that dangerous terrain does not hinder drones.

Some initial successes have been seen. In the Philippines, for example, drones were used in the government’s Kalsada program, which provides financing for provincial road projects.

Similar use-cases can be seen in the power and energy sectors, too. The energy sector can use UAVs to inspect renewable energy sources. These could be done via drones equipped with thermal cameras, which can take pictures and videos without being affected by weather-related vagaries.

Once a project is up and running, drones can help monitor the location for adverse risks. For example, a 2019 oil palm fire in Genting, Malaysia, could be contained on time only because drones deployed in the area spotted the fire, captured images, and alerted officials thousands of miles away in Jakarta.

Within ASEAN, Malaysia is vying to become the leading country for the drone industry. Malaysia, in particular, has deployed drones for maritime security. In September 2021, the Malaysian government launched Area 57, which will be an exclusive drone development zone in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.

This zone is equipped with not just a runway and drone testing mock-up site, but it also has a laboratory, manufacturing equipment, training facilities, and prototype testing areas. Servicing and maintenance facilities are also provided.

Considering the rising demand, local players such as Meraque have announced plans to skill the Malaysian youth to join the burgeoning drone industry. Here, the country’s varied terrain and diverse geography are also conducive to drone deployment.

So it is no surprise that Malaysian drone startups such as Aerodyne have been able to expand their presence into regions such as Thailand successfully. In addition, mainstream companies such as poultry producer CAB Cakaran are now diversifying into drone services to expand their revenue stream.

Investors are taking notice as well. In September 2021, Malaysian drone startup Poladrone raised the country’s largest-ever seed capital of $4.3 million in a funding round led by Wavemaker Partners.

For commuters too, research and development on drone-based taxis are underway. Among ASEAN countries, Indonesia has begun testing its taxi drones. These will be unmanned aerial vehicles that can fly up to 35 kilometers.

Since drone usage is getting mainstream in ASEAN, there are opportunities for both the public and private sector players to grow.

Within the region, while regulatory curbs exist defining the dos and don’ts of drone operators, large startups such as Aerodyne and Fling have made waves globally. In fact, Fling CEO Michael Currie had in 2019 envisaged a future where food deliveries in SE Asia will be made through drones.

Four years later, several experimental deliveries in Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines have been made. However, regulatory restrictions have meant that it hasn’t been adopted on a large scale.

In the near future, experts have noted that drones and autonomous machines will pave the way for more efficient construction and enable better management of energy resources. Enabling regulations will help attract new investments into the drone sector.

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