Dream of Flying

The following story appeared in Thai in Issue 14 of Optimise Magazine, October 2018.

For those involved in Thailand’s drone industry, a future filled with flying machines will help change the nation in ways few of us might expect.

The midday Bangkok sun radiates onto Sathorn tar as a never-ending line of cars and motorcycles is at a standstill; the walkways are jammed as office-workers race to their lunch break. The heat is oppressive, the traffic movement unstructured, all-round the experience is deeply uncomfortable. In other words, just a normal day in Bangkok’s blistering downtown core.

Just metres away from this chaos, a man calmly sips his cold brew coffee. His short-sleeve shirt is casual and cleanly pressed. His carefully crafted hair is firmly in place. Not a single bead of sweat is in sight. Michael Currie is the personification of cool, calm and collected. With his keen eye overlooking external proceedings, the CEO and founder of Thai startup Fling ponders the city’s current urban flow.

“Think about how much noise there is. Just walk out onto the streets of Bangkok, it’s incredibly noisy,” Michael says in his distinct, contemplative tone. “Imagine a future where all of the traffic that is on the ground right now was up in the sky—90, 150, maybe 200 metres up in the air, and instead, on the ground, it’s parks and people walking in the area that is right now occupied by cars and motorcycles and pollution. It’s the stuff science fiction is made out of, but it really is in our future.”

This utopian vision has fuelled Fling’s ambition to become one of Southeast Asia’s leading drone consulting companies, using their in-depth expertise of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and regulations to tackle real world problems. And yet, for many years, drones were largely unknown in Thailand and the larger global community, relegated to hardware innovators, the military and/or hobbyists.

“You had to be a tinkerer and come from either an RC aircraft background or from an aerospace engineering background because there were a lot of things to work out,” says Currie.

However, this has changed rapidly. 2017 saw three million drones sold worldwide; enterprise drone use across all sectors increased an astounding 500-percent in the same year, with adoption rates now increasing 20-percent every month. At the same time, data collected by drones is being used in over 180 countries across 400,000 job sites. They are being used by farmers to monitor and spray crops and hospitals for urgent medical and organ shipments. They are quickly becoming an everyday tool of industry.

This shift is happening in Thailand as well. The country’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission estimated approximately 50,000 drones were operating in the country at the start of 2018, and The Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand is regularly using UAVs to inspect their pylons for damage.

The Thai government’s focus on agriculture and foodtech, outlined in its Thailand 4.0 initiative, is also feeling the touch of these flying machines—particularly when it comes to pest control over large areas and on difficult-to-reach crops like coconuts trees. Local Thai startups, Bug Away Thailand and Novy, are leading the charge by modifying commercially available drones for agricultural use to help distribute fertilizers and spray insecticides.

“We began thinking about how to develop drones for the benefit of our country,” said Novy’s Kridtat Satharanond during an interview with The Nation earlier this year on the heels of winning Thailand’s UAV-Startup 2017 competition. “As most of the people are still engaged in farming, most of them need technology to support them in their efforts to get more yield from their crops. But this is particularly difficult in the case of coconut trees, given their height.”

“A man can spend all day spraying [a few acres] of coconut farmland, while using the drone will only take him three minutes,” claims Novy member Weerachat Kamkun.

Since developing their technology and establishing their company in 2018, the team at Novy has quickly locked down orders for six of their agricultural drones, mostly by agricultural operators that provides services to farmers—as of right now, their technology is too expensive (300,000 THB per drone) for most individual farmers to afford. Thailand’s larger agricultural community has taken notice, too. In March of this year, the team at Novy won top prize in the category of Life Enhancement in the Thai Green Design Awards 2018 hosted by Kasetsart University’s Agricultural and Agro-Industrial Product Improvement Institute.

The diverse range of applications for drone technology is what gets entrepreneurs like Kridtat and Currie so excited. They’re chasing broad-spectrum, everyday applications for using airspace—a territory normally reserved for multimillion dollar vehicles—and bringing it to a general consumer level.

“When Amazon made the announcement four years ago that they were working on delivery drones, it grabbed people’s attention and imagination,” Currie states. “A future where you use an app to order some food and before you’re even done washing your hands, it’s arrived on your balcony. It’s going to be absolutely amazing.”

In a joint venture with the Digital Economy Promotion Agency and several hotels and condominium properties, Fling is trialing Thailand’s first drone delivery service in Pattaya, linking local restaurants and stores directly to residents.

Most of a consumer’s understanding of what drones can do is predominantly informed by the way they are used in film, television and commercials. And, for many audiences, that vision comes courtesy of aerial cinematography company XM2. The company’s credit roll includes Hollywood blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Reef; Pacific Rim: Uprising; WestWorld, and Lion. Originally founded in Australia, the company spends considerable time in Thailand, where a notable chunk of its projects take place. While the country has enacted tough regulations on drone use in recent years, it’s still relatively “open season” compared to elsewhere.

“Working here is relatively easy compared to other countries,” says Luke Annells, XM2’s founder and CEO. “The regulations surrounding production work are less stringent in general, which allows for more flexibility—always a good thing in the case of rapidly change.”

Most of XM2’s activity in Thailand focuses on producing commercials for local luxury brands, automakers and property developers—with the latter being a booming source of income for drone companies.

It’s an approach echoed by Panomatics, an award winning provider of 360 degrees virtual tours, aerial video and photography for hotel groups such as Langham, Anantara, Marriott Group, Amari and The Peninsula Bangkok, and one of the first providers to have their own in-house UAV.

For Natcha Settheethavorn, a key project manager at Panomatics’ Phrakhanong office, the rise in drone photography for hotel groups and property developers came primarily through the convenience and access to new perspectives.

“To fly a helicopter, which had been the incumbent for years, you required a pilot,” she says “The flexibility of drone technology means we can now provide clients more distinctive shots that not only capture the hotel’s great facilities but also the feel of its surrounding neighbourhood and accessibility to important amenities such as public transportation, shopping malls, and tourist sights.”

For Panomatics’ clients, the changing face of decision-making and consumer choice requires a constant engagement with new technology to enrich the decision-making experience. More than 77-percent of Thai millennials show interest in augmented reality apps, and Panomatics continues to be at the forefront of feeding into this interest with new innovations.

“We are looking to create QR codes for our clients’ virtual tours and aerial photography, so people can scan and interact with them anywhere, at any time, rather than having to trawl through a website,” Natcha says. “We hope this will inevitably lead to even better applications such as with augmented reality, where hotels and property developers can overlay our content onto their own branded materials to better interact with their potential customers.”

This accessibility to consumers is a substantial reason for the drone’s newfound popularity, particularly within Thailand. Tourists are replacing their selfie sticks with drones for travel photography as the technology becomes more user-friendly. “Eight years ago, DJI were selling self-assembly kits and only hobbyists were using drones. But in the last five or six years drones have turned into the iPhone, where every year there’s a new release and it’s a completely feature-filled workable system.”

The surge in UAV use by the average customer is challenging for regulators. In response, the Thai government has required reconciliation between its encouragement of drone innovation as part of the Thailand 4.0 initiative and its precautionary attitude to privacy and security. In October 2017, the Thai Government introduced broad regulations for drone use across recreational, scientific, and commercial sectors, including compulsory registration of individual drones and a need to have proper insurance.

“It’s really fun to fly a drone,” says Currie. “It’s really exhilarating, but now there’s this influx of people who have no idea what they’re doing. They get a drone for Christmas as a gift, so it’s understandable that the regulators have had to set up some pretty harsh rules, especially in the absence of good software solutions telling the drones where they can and cannot fly.”

If Thailand hopes to escape its path towards harsh government regulation on drone use, it needs investment in unmanned traffic management software and the ability to have UAVs send their positions to existing air traffic systems. But using existing air-traffic systems is a Band-Aid solution. Most stakeholders, like Currie and Natcha, have their eyes on a different piece of emerging technology: the “sense and avoid” algorithms currently being developed for use in driverless cars.

In early June, hundreds of the world’s foremost drone companies, aviation experts and system providers gathered in Madrid for the Global Unmanned Traffic Management Association annual conference. Michael presented his five-year forecast and a proposition that soon drones will have enough technology packaged within them to effectively avoid each other without a need for air traffic software.

“There was a lot of talk there about adapting the technology for driverless cars to work in drones,” says Currie. “The highly-competitive world of driverless cars is driving the price and form-factor of the technology down as incredible speeds. It won’t be long before you see it in drones.”

The Thai Government is focused on how advances in drone technology could improve the urban living of its people. As part of the Thailand 4.0 initiative, the government hosted the Drone Forum in Bangkok on July 18—bringing together the Royal Thai Air Force, regulators, and over a hundred members of the drone industry—to discuss the future of UAVs in Thailand.

“It’s incorrect to characterize the military as being old-fashioned and unwilling to embrace innovation,” Currie says. “You really have to admire the way the Royal Thai Air Force has been able to take the fact they are so well respected and listened to, and are able to leverage that into creating opportunities for industry.”

Some might argue that Currie’s vision of the future is idealistic. He envisions a world where cars are no longer needed, and much of back-and-forth transport of day-to-day life takes place up in the sky with an open ground to enjoy below. That’s still a futurist concept far, far off in the distance—if ever achievable—but technology has a way of sneaking up on society without anyone really noticing. If you were to tell someone at the turn of the millennium that in a decade and a half they would have an oracle in their pocket capable of answering nearly any question they wanted, it would seem insane. But that’s precisely what an internet-connected smartphone is. The future of drone technology, too, is likely to explode in a way few expect. Today, it’s solutions for coconut farmers, delivery services and swooping aerial cinematography, but the potential is sky high.

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