In the last few months, panic ensued in Asia as haze and a red sky terrorized Indonesia and spread to neighboring areas. Office workers from Genting Plantations Berhad in Jakarta investigated the source using images collected from drones flown above their oil palms to help the company spot fires.
Aside from locating fires, drones have been used to collect data to check whether crops have enough water and nutrients. Drones can even find leakages in irrigation systems. The use of drones in the agriculture industry is so significant that it accounted for more than a quarter of the $2.67 billion in commercial drone sales in 2016, according to Allied Market Research. Demand will expand about 22 percent a year, reaching $2.44 billion by 2022, it says.
And since palm oil plantations are spread across some 22.3 million hectares (86,100 square miles) of Malaysia and Indonesia—an area almost the size of the United Kingdom—the industry therefore represents fertile ground for drone sales. Palm oil is, in fact, the world’s most consumed vegetable oil.
How Drones Are Revolutionizing the Southeast Asian Palm Oil Industry
Due to the growing trend in sustainable farming and precision agriculture, new government programs, the greater use of smartphones, and the development of smart technology, worldwide drone sales in the agricultural sector alone could reach up $8 billion by 2026, according to Market Study Report LLC.
“We monitor satellite images twice a day and if there are any hot spots near our boundaries, we’ll alert the plantation to take action,” said Narayanan Ramanathan, Genting’s senior vice president of plantation advisory. “If it’s too far away and we can’t access it by road, we’ll send a drone to check.”
A key challenge for the palm oil trade is increasing yield productivity per unit area. Aside from detecting fires, drones are capable of collecting data that can be used to decide if crops have enough water and nutrients. Drones can even find leakages in irrigation systems. In comparison, a single UAV can capture images of about 2,500 hectares of oil palms a day, while a human can cover only 5 hectares, said William Tao, chief operating officer at Hong Kong–based Insight Robotics Ltd, which provides drone-based services to Southeast Asian palm growers.
Safety of workers
Today, the pressure for palm oil companies to do more with less is higher than ever; so is the need to protect the often forgotten part of the palm oil story: the people who grow it. Workers had traditionally trudged in the tropical heat through dense grass and sometimes hilly terrain inhabited by snakes and scorpions to monitor plantations by sight. Instead of farmers, smaller, more nimble drones are used for surveillance, especially for flood and fire in hard-to-reach areas.
The current technology to deal with cloud cover is the usage of drones for palm counting, monitoring the plantations’ health, and the detection of diseases or nutrient deficiencies, says a spokesperson at Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), a large palm oil firm. The aerial devices use high-resolution cameras that snap thousands of pictures for assembling composite pictures, which are then used to count trees and map estates. Genting Plantations is also weighing multispectral cameras on drones to monitor palm health and detect pests. Genting also uses satellites for mapping and surveillance, and is looking to artificial intelligence to analyze those images for more accurate feedback on tree health, yield potential, and nutrient status.
The Next Big Thing for the Palm Oil Industry
Where once agriculturists could only observe the palm plantations by piloting aircraft or satellites or trudging through the fields themselves, today they are refining their operations without actually being up there. They only need to control the drones from their office with the use of a transmitter, thereby saving significant cost and effort. This means agriculturists can now focus more on precision, analysis, innovation, among others to move the industry forward.