Eyes in the sky

From mon­i­tor­ing crop growth to oil rig safety, Malaysia is steadily en­ter­ing the age of the drone.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TECHNOLOGY - By STEVEN PATRICK bytz@ thes­tar. com. my

THE ori­gin of drones may be mired in war, killings and blood, but it has be­come one of the key tech­nolo­gies of the 21st cen­tury. Also known as UAV ( un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle) and some­times “fly­ing cam­eras”, they are be­ing used in many in­no­va­tive ways from walk­ing dogs to search and res­cue op­er­a­tions.

While Malaysia is not on the fore­front of drone tech­nol­ogy, many or­gan­i­sa­tions are al­ready em­ploy­ing it to do tasks that would take a hu­man many hours, while oth­ers are in the process of do­ing so.

The Royal Malaysian Police is ex­pected to de­ploy drones to pa­trol the streets, ba­si­cally act­ing as their eyes, said In­spec­tor- General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar.

Khalid has a big­ger pic­ture in mind – he is hop­ing to use drones to stem ter­ror­ism and track crime sus­pects by link­ing drones to the police’s bio­met­ric data­base.

Se­nior As­sis­tant Com­mis­sioner Datuk S. Sathiya See­lan, com­man­der of the Royal Malaysian Police Air Op­er­a­tions Force ( PGU), said the Bukit Aman police head­quar­ters now has four drones.

“The drone unit has been es­tab­lished and is pro­gress­ing fairly well. But there are a host of safety and reg­u­la­tory is­sues to be re­solved and we need to en­gage ac­tively with the Depart­ment of Civil Avi­a­tion ( DCA) to en­sure ef­fec­tive im­ple­men­ta­tion,” he said.

One of the hur­dles the police is fac­ing is in the Aero­nau­ti­cal In­for­ma­tion Cir­cu­lar is­sued by the DCA which re­quires ev­ery drone op­er­a­tor to pos­sess a pri­vate pi­lot li­cense, which might take up to a year to at­tain.

The police is cur­rently in talks with the DCA for an al­ter­na­tive cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for han­dling drones which would re­quire less train­ing time, he said.

It is also plan­ning to de­ploy drones na­tion­wide and has re­quested the funds to buy drones for each state.

“The fig­ure re­quested is con­fi­den­tial but it’s a pru­dent amount due to the cur­rent eco­nomic situation,” he said.

As drones con­tinue to evolve, the police will also look into us­ing them for bor­der con­trol, crowd sur­veil­lance and other sit­u­a­tions, he added.

No man’s sky

Bob Hart­ley, CEO of Dragon­fly Robotix Sdn Bhd, an aerial pho­tog­ra­phy com­pany, said drones have been used in Malaysia for the past four years in the agri­cul­ture, con­struc­tion, and oil and gas in­dus­tries.

For in­stance, the Sabah- based com­pany uses drones to map palm oil plan­ta­tions so that the own­ers will have a clear idea on where the crops need wa­ter­ing.

“As plan­ta­tions can stretch for thou­sands of acres, the job is best done with a drone,” said Hart­ley.

“We strap high def­i­ni­tion DSLR cam­eras onto the drones and fly them in two hour stretches at a time. We usu­ally make the drones do three trips daily for a few days to get good re­sults,” he said.

Drones are also used for rig in­spec­tions – the com­pany flies drones for up to six times a day to en­sure safety stan­dards are met and there are no cracks or other de­fects in the rigs.

They can also be used at con­struc­tion sites to con­duct fea­si­bil­ity stud­ies, track project devel­op­ment and mon­i­tor im­pact to the en­vi­ron­ment, he added.

Me­dia com­pa­nies have also been quick to jump on the band­wagon, as drones al­low them to cap­ture aerial shots of, say, crowds at ral­lies or il­le­gal log­ging.

The Star, for in­stance, has been us­ing the DJI Phan­tom 3 drone since 2013 and has used it to cap­ture photos of the sec­ond Pe­nang Bridge dur­ing the in­au­gu­ral open­ing, and an aerial view of Port Klang’s Lit­tle In­dia.

Mean­while, Pos Malaysia and the Malaysian Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Mul­ti­me­dia Com­mis­sion ( MCMC) are cur­rently re­search­ing the use of drones for de­liv­ery but won’t com­ment on the mat­ter fur­ther.

High­light­ing plights

When the East Coast was flooded early last year, drones were used to shoot videos and map the af­fected places.

“One drone equipped with ther­mal sen­sors, a DJI Ma­trice 100, man­aged to de­tect sur­vivors wait­ing on a hill­top in Manek Urai, Ke­lan­tan,” said Ka­marul Muhamed, founder and CEO of aerial- map­ping com­pany Aero­dyne Geospa­tial Sdn Bhd.

“The dam­age was se­vere. Our team was shak­ing when we saw the ex­tent of the dam­age,” said Ka­marul.

He was glad his com­pany’s drones could help with dam­age as­sess­ment and post- flood anal­y­sis. “Drones have a bad rep­u­ta­tion be­cause of their con­nec­tion with the mil­i­tary but these de­vices can save lives,” he said.

Aerial pho­tog­ra­pher Oh Keat Meng also made the trip to Men­takab, Pa­hang dur­ing the flood with his trusty DJI Phan­tom 2 drone and GoPro 4K cam­era.

“Pre­vi­ously you would have to spend about RM4,000 an hour to rent a he­li­copter to do some­thing like this. Now you can buy a de­cent drone that does the same job for less than RM5,000,” he said.

He shot an hour’s worth of footage, which he edited into a three- minute video and reached out to Datuk Zainal Abidin to ask per­mis­sion to in­clude Hi­jau as the back­ground song. He then up­loaded it to YouTube to raise aware­ness of the in­ci­dent.

“The images were very real. You just knew those peo­ple were in trou­ble when you watched it. I felt it was my re­spon­si­bil­ity to help them,” said Zainal. He held a char­ity con­cert to­gether with other lo­cal singers to raise money for the vic­tims.

Drones can also come in handy if some­one is lost in a jun­gle, said Oh.

“The cam­eras on drones go up to 4K res­o­lu­tion and can be used to spot clues such as pieces of cloth­ing,” he said.

Movie magic

Drones are also widely used in movies, even lo­cal ones. Movie mak­ers here have been em­brac­ing drone tech­nol­ogy since the past two years, said Malaysia Film Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Datuk Yu­sof Haslam.

“Most film direc­tors are aware of what drones can do for them and it’s par­tic­u­larly great for ac­tion movies,” he said.

Veteran di­rec­tor/ pro­ducer Saw Teong Hin said drones are com­monly used in films as it’s far cheaper to hire than he­li­copters.

He em­ployed Vince Sky­cam, a com­pany that spe­cialises in aerial videog­ra­phy, to use drones to film a car chase scene in Batu Fer­ringhi, Pe­nang, and to cap­ture an aerial shot of the sea for his up­com­ing Hokkien movie Hai Ki Xin Lor.

Wil­liam Alvisse, di­rec­tor of RCC Aero­data Sdn Bhd, an aerial pho­tog­ra­phy com­pany, said: “Drones have the added ad­van­tage of tak­ing night shots and low level shots that even a he­li­copter can­not take.”

Big hit

Drones have also be­come a pop­u­lar hobby – Alvisse feels the surge in in­ter­est is due to the fall­ing prices of drones.

“Also, the level of skill re­quired to fly a drone is low. A new­bie can learn to fly a drone within 15 min­utes,” he said.

He feels begin­ners should join a so­ci­ety like Mu­das ( Malaysia Un­manned Drone Ac­tivist So­ci­ety) be­fore buy­ing a drone.

“You can ob­serve what mod­els oth­ers buy and find out more about it on the Net. When you have bought one, you should fly with the guid­ance of

ex­pe­ri­enced fly­ers, never alone,” he said.

Most start with “toy drones” like the Syma X5C, which re­tails around RM300. It has a 2- megapixel cam­era, can fly for about seven min­utes on a sin­gle charge and reach a height of 15m, said Oh.

“Some don’t want to fork out so much for their first drone as they might crash it while learn­ing to fly. Oth­ers may want to jump straight to the Phan­tom 3 pro­fes­sional drone be­cause it’s very easy to ma­noeu­vre,” he said.

The Phan­tom 3 comes with an in­te­grated, gim­bal- sta­bilised 4K cam­era, ul­tra­sonic sen­sors and has re­mote con­trol but­tons for play­back, video record­ing and cam­era shut­ter.

Some hob­by­ists pre­fer to make their own drones. “Most like their drone to look dif­fer­ent from the ones they sell in shops. They can add on more lights, dif­fer­ent cam­era and ro­botic arms,” said Alvisse.

“They also get to build a de­cent drone for around RM1,000.”

Toe the Line

Al­though there are no reg­u­la­tions for drones yet in Malaysia, Oh ad­vises hob­by­ists to be aware of the safety as­pects and to re­spect the US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s height limit of 150m above ground level.

He also rec­om­mends at least 15 fly­ing hours of prac­tice in an open field be­fore fly­ing in parks where there are lots of peo­ple.

Alvisse said that one of the key guide­lines for op­er­at­ing drones in­clude not fly­ing within five nau­ti­cal miles ( about 9km) of air­ports.

In March last year, the DCA warned against fly­ing drones near air­ports af­ter a se­ries of photos of the KL In­ter­na­tional Air­port – pur­port­edly shot with a drone – ap­peared on so­cial me­dia.

The photos went vi­ral which alarmed the pub­lic as most peo­ple feared that drones fly­ing so close to the air­port could cause an avi­a­tion dis­as­ter.

The DCA is­sued a state­ment say­ing that fly­ing of unau­tho­rised drones in the vicin­ity of air­ports is “strictly pro­hib­ited and con­sti­tutes an of­fence un­der the Civil Avi­a­tion Act 1969”.

It’s also im­por­tant to en­sure the air­wor­thi­ness of the drone and to al­ways en­sure that the drone is within line of sight of the user.

Still, many are not com­fort­able with drones buzzing about in the air. “Peo­ple are para­noid be­cause drones are ba­si­cally fly­ing cam­eras. But any­body with a sports cam­era can zoom into your house win­dow and take photos if he or she wants to. They don’t need a drone,” Oh said.

There are also safety is­sues – a drone could be used to drop a bomb, for in­stance – but Oh is still con­vinced that drones can bring about more good than bad.

“As for be­ing a danger to peo­ple, car ac­ci­dents prob­a­bly kill more peo­ple but that doesn’t mean we have to ban cars. Drones can be of ser­vice to so­ci­ety,” he said.

View from the top:

A breath­tak­ing aerial shot taken by oh us­ing a drone with a 4K cam­era.

rizal Al­liyud­din and John­son Lum are part of a grow­ing pool of peo­ple that en­joy fly­ing drones in parks for recreation. — rIcKy LAI/ The Star

Ka­marul says Aero­dyne now owns more than 50 drones for use in agri­cul­ture, con­struc­tion, and oil and gas in­dus­tries. — SA­MUEL onG/ The Star

A photo shot from a drone while it’s be­ing used to in­spect an oil rig in Labuan. — dragon­fly robotix

Staff of­fi­cer of the tac­ti­cal and strat­egy depart­ment of PGU, SUPT Ah­mad Ab­dul hadi, Sathiya See­lan and deputy com­man­der of op­er­a­tions AcP Sha­harudin hj Taib with the Phan­tom 3 drone which the police are test­ing. — rMP

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