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.
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.
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.”
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.