Two years ago, Razalee Ismail met a client who wanted to know if the drones developed by his company could be used to spray fertiliser on mature palm oil trees.
“I hesitated. I said it’s impossible because our drones are huge and the crowns (the upper part of the trees where the fronds sprout) of mature palm oil trees could get in the way,” says the founder and CEO of Meraque Services, a Selangor-based automation solutions company.
However, when the client insisted, Razalee and his team decided to take a chance and deploy their hybrid spot-spraying drone.
“They came to us for help, and we wanted to meet their demand. And guess what? The drone hit a tree and crashed to the ground. They (the client) looked at the drone and said, ‘Okay, thank you for trying!’” says Razalee with a laugh as he recalls the incident.
Convinced that technological advancements are essential for tackling challenges such as labour shortages and increasing productivity, Razalee began to work on an autonomous ground vehicle (AGV).
This AGV, akin to a self-driving tractor, was designed to assist workers with spraying fertiliser at sprawling palm oil plantations.
“Initially, we planned for a four-wheel vehicle but quickly realised that it may not be able to handle the challenging and uneven terrain of the plantation,” he said, noting that the rainy monsoon season posed the risk of the tyres becoming stuck in the mud.
Instead, he decided to fit it with rubber tracks for improved traction and a Lidar (light detection and ranging) system to allow it to navigate in the dark, as conventional cameras struggle in low-lit conditions.
The Lidar system creates detailed 3D maps of the surroundings, allowing for more precise navigation and obstacle avoidance, regardless of whether it’s day or night.
As the AGV traverses the plantation, it also gathers data, which is relayed to the command centre in real-time, which is made possible with LoRa sensors strategically positioned throughout the site.
“When you go to a plantation, there is no Internet connection, so we essentially had to build our own network,” he says, claiming that he has patented his work.
Razalee hopes the government can foster awareness among farmers about the benefits of technology and provide avenues for training. — Meraque Services
LoRa, which stands for long range, is a wireless technology designed for the transmission of small amounts of data over extended ranges while consuming minimal power.
Razalee says that typically it requires three workers to handle the spraying: one to drive the tractor and the other two to apply the fertilisers.
However, with the AGV, only one person is needed to remotely operate the vehicle, as the spraying process is automated.
The AGV also has a smart system that was developed through the analysis of 10,000 palm oil tree images using artificial intelligence (AI).
“So it sprays selectively. It will only spray a tree that it recognises based on the data,” says Razalee.
In contrast to the conventional “street spraying” method often employed, which he claims is characterised by “spraying all the way”, the AGV reduces wastage by up to 40%.
He says this is a good example of precision agriculture that uses AI and image analysis to optimise farming practices.
Jay Desan, co-founder of agritech startup BoomGrow Farms says there is an assumption that food will always be available in the supermarket.
“But if there’s a lesson we can take from the pandemic, it is that operations like the food supply chain could be disrupted due to worker shortages or factory shutdowns.
“We also have to consider issues like climate change,” she says.
As Malaysia relies heavily on foreign imports for domestic consumption, Jay says it is time to focus on hyperlocal production to help reduce the environmental impact associated with transporting food from the origin country to consumers.
“Malaysians love imported produce, but we need to start thinking about how we can grow and consume locally,” says Jay.
In an office building in Shah Alam, Selangor, Jay’s company has set up a vertical farm where leafy greens like kale, spinach and Swiss chards grow in trays on rows and rows of shelves.
The plants don’t have to be watered or fed nutrients by workers, says Jay, as such tasks are automated through the company’s proprietary AI-driven precision farming technology.
“We can reimagine the supply chain by growing consistently, no matter the conditions. Plant science is at the heart of what we do, and we’ve essentially figured out the recipe for how to grow the produce that we have using a combination of hardware and software,” she says.
She explains that the farm is equipped with fans, LED lights, and sensors that continuously collect data on the produce from its initial stages as seeds until the time of harvest.
“One of the issues with traditional farming is that you can never predict how the produce will turn out. You may have to wait until the day the crop is ready to be harvested, and sometimes along the way, the produce may not even grow,” she says.
Jay says the aim is to eliminate the need for guesswork through collaboration with agronomists and engineers to implement data-driven farming methods.
“R&D took us three years,” she says, adding that precision farming technology can help save resources like water.
She says that even the time to harvest can be reduced, claiming that kale is ready for harvest in weeks compared to how it takes up to three months to grow with traditional farming methods.
Most importantly, Jay says the produce is also palatable.
“One of the challenges we faced during R&D was nailing the taste. We could grow consistently, but then it didn’t taste as good. But we managed to crack it because it’s so fresh that it actually tastes good,” she says.
Ripe for solution
After 18 months of development, Meraque’s AGV, named RACE for Robotic Agro in Complex Environment, was launched by Agriculture and Food Security Minister Datuk Seri Mohamad Sabu in September.
Razalee is in the process of enhancing the AGV’s capabilities to support additional tasks, like harvesting.
“In the second phase, we want to see how we can add robotic arms for that,” he adds.
The commercialisation of the AGV is in progress, according to Razalee, with the vehicle currently being trialled on a few plantations in Selangor.
Based on on-site feedback, Razalee says that, as with any new technology, clients need time to adapt, and his company will provide training on how to operate the vehicle.
“There is a learning curve to transition from conventional farming to precision farming through the AGV.
“We hope that the government can provide more awareness to farmers about how they can benefit from the use of technology and provide avenues for training.
“From what I understand, people are also worried about tech being expensive or that they may not be able to handle the new solution,” Razalee says, adding that the AGV will be priced between RM100,000 and RM120,000.
The Malaysian Pineapple Industry Board (LPNM) deputy director general of development Linda Buang said in a statement that technological innovation is crucial in addressing the current challenges industries are facing, such as labour shortages and rising costs.
In August, the organisation held a workshop on the use of drones for pineapple farming, says Linda, as they are widely used in other sectors, including paddy fields.
“The technology can benefit the pineapple industry in terms of saving time and cost and improving labour efficiency.
“We also saw the potential for the creation of new job opportunities and hope to attract more young workers into the agriculture industry,” she says.
The organisation is currently preparing drone handling guidelines to ensure the safety of workers and the public, says Linda, adding that the guide will be released once its members have gathered enough data, including how the pineapple farmers are adjusting to the use of drones.
“For now, large-scale businesses have already started using drones in their operations. We’ve learned that the biggest challenge for members to adapt to drones is the cost because it can be quite expensive,” she says.
Jay says a proper framework is needed to help the agriculture industry in Malaysia adapt to technology.
“Perhaps we need more people to be involved in the process. With tech, you can’t just think about putting a sensor in one place and then expecting it to work,” she says, emphasising the necessity to cultivate talent, particularly in data handling.
Razalee dismisses concerns that technology will be used to replace people: “We are upscaling talent. We have met farmers who are clueless about technology and want to avoid it. We are doing our part to convince them of the benefits. Ultimately, we want to empower farmers with new skills.”