On Oct 16, 1962, when then US President John F. Kennedy was informed that US surveillance aircraft had discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba, the world came its closest ever to nuclear doomsday.
Luckily, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with both sides making a compromise.
On Oct 28, 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered the removal of the missiles while the Americans also secretly pledged to withdraw intermediate nuclear missiles from Turkey and not to invade Cuba.
The surveillance and tools available to interpret the data proved immensely useful for decision-making in the crisis.
While the world has stepped away from that kind of threat, the use of data gathered by aerial means is rising rapidly in the realm of business and decision-making.
One company offering services using aerial surveillance technologies is MySpatial Sdn Bhd.
The company specialises in, among other things, helping plantation owners improve yields by understanding a site before developing a planting area.
Former Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) coursemates, Mohd Syarmy Shamsuddin and Mohd Azuar Yaakub, formed the company in Sept 2009 to provide geospatial information to customers.
Geospatial information involves the analysis of imagery, topography and other location-related datasets combined into complex layers.
These layers show information that visually depicts physical features and geographically referenced activities on earth, from land use to population density.
“When we were in the private sector, we realised that there was little proper planning prior to a plantation development. Mostly, it was done via guess work or agak-agak”, Mohd Azuar told Metrobiz.
He said previously, plantation owners would invite contractors to survey a site planned for plantation development and the contractors would be asked to quote the development cost.
Now, using satellite images, MySpatial can provide a better reading of the terrain and provide a plan on how best to plant oil palms. To verify this, the company also goes to the selected areas to do slope reading.
“With our mapping accuracy, we are able to provide plantation owners a development plan, and they could use it to ask for a more accurate quotation of the development costs,” he said.
He added that this led to fewer variation orders, giving plantation owners better control of their costs.
The pair started the company with RM14,000 saved from their early working days after graduating with a degree in remote sensing. This included a stint at the Science Technology and Innovation Ministry as research officers specialising in satellite and radar image processing in agriculture and flood modelling.
They later ventured into the private sector as project managers, where they saw the potential of their current business.
“Some of the existing clients asked us if we could provide more comprehensive services, and that was one of the sparks for us to form the company,” said Mohd Azuar.
The enterprising pair also sold burgers and steamboat after office hours for additional income at the time.
Beginning with just the two of them, they rented a 500 sq ft office space in Jalan Reko, Kajang, with most of the capital spent on buying computer equipment and mapping-related applications and software.
Their first project was for Felcra Plantations Sdn Bhd in the same year the company was set up. The work was to do inventory management, with their company doing digital mapping of assets in the rubber and oil palm plantations in Johor, including tagging close to a million trees using satellite images and GPS tracking systems.
The work was vital for the plantation owners to know in greater detail and accuracy what they actually had on the ground — from tree count to plantable and unplantable areas.
One of the most important elements is what is called “palm stand”, in industry speak. This describes the number of trees that are standing, growing and producing fruit.
“Some trees are dead and need replacing, but the method of using an average density to count this does not give the plantation owners an accurate picture,” Mohd Azuar said.
On the other hand, using manual labour to calculate the numbers gives different figures as it is dependent on how the person classifies the trees.
However, he said, satellite images and their customised software gave a more accurate picture.
“The satellite image will capture palm stands in high resolution, and our software will be able mark them and calculate the total.”
This facilitates replanting activities and also prevents wastage of fertiliser as inaccurate palm stands (which include dead trees) leads to the unnecessary use of fertiliser.
As the company grew, one of their coursemates, Mohd Dini Hairi Suliman, joined the company in 2012 as the marketing director.
Recently, the company also invested about RM200,000 in Swiss-made unmanned aerial vehicles, inclusive of navigation and processing software.
Apart from higher accuracy compared with satellite images, the UAVs are also not affected by cloud cover and the long queues for satellite imagery.
“To order a satellite shot, it sometimes takes up to four months to get our turn,” Mohd Azuar said.
MySpatial has completed over 60 plantation mapping projects covering more than 200,000ha in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia since its establishment.
Mohd Azuar said the price for each project start from RM7,000 for a desktop study that includes providing analysis of land use and net plantable area for 2,000ha.
“These projects give the plantation owners a rough guide on whether they should purchase a piece of land for their plantation activities. We will use satellite image and purchase contour information from the Department of Survey and Mapping Malaysia,” he said.
Higher-value projects, which can cost RM200,000, usually involves larger pieces of land of up to 10,000ha and the use of UAVs to provide greater accuracy and 3D analysis.
“Simply put, the analysis gives you the view and additional information of the site, similar to being in a helicopter but you can have it in your boardroom,” Mohd Syarmy says.
Moving forward, the company, with a 16-strong team currently working from a 1,000 sq ft office in Kompleks Sentral Point, Kajang, intends to invest in longer range UAVs and also in lightweight Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) remote sensing equipment for detailed terrain mapping, which includes height analysis.