Disruptr MY speaks to Razalee Ismail, CEO of Meraque Services Sdn Bhd, an emerging Disruptr in the drone industry on Meraque’s growth to the top, drone usage in the agriculture industry and the need for regulators and industry players to work together to strike a balance between safety and technology development.
Notable names in Malaysia have made their mark in the drone industry not only locally, but also internationally. Can you share more about Meraque’s growth, performance in 2021 and what do you hope to achieve this year?
RI: The pandemic has inadvertently forced many industries towards digitalisation. Oil palm plantation owners that relied on foreign labour faced challenges in managing the plantation with labour shortages against higher demand. Meraque being a digital-centric and client-centric company understood this challenge.
With our expertise, we were able to expand our digital solution services to local plantation owners with the First Hybrid Drone Spraying for Agriculture and the Precision Agriculture Software Solution. Not only did they see increased efficiency in harvesting, but they also reduced costs from the foregone labour dependency and reduced fertiliser and pesticide usage.
For Meraque, the positive acceptance by the market has encouraged us to expand our research & development to further provide digital solutions to our clients. By 2021, we had expanded across Malaysia with more than 50,000 flight hours clocked. This year, we look forward to extending our presence in the ASEAN region.
Do you have a 3 or 5-year plan that you would like to achieve? Would you be able to share more?
RI: Yes, we do have a medium-term and long-term plan for Meraque. Evolving from a facilities management company to a digital solutions provider company, we had to re-strategise our existing plans and understood that we will need to repeat this annually to ensure we meet our KPI and goals.
The recent expansion of our popular First Hybrid Drone Spraying for Agriculture and the Precision Agriculture Software Solutions proved that the solutions we provide are indeed beneficial to our clients. With the South East Asia region being the main producer for oil palm, we see tremendous opportunity to expand our drone and software solutions to other companies.
The news of international borders reopening is an indication of the right time for Meraque to expand internationally. We are also thankful for the support from government agencies such as MOSTI and MATRADE in pushing Meraque to global territories. With their support, we believe our solutions would be easily accepted in the ASEAN region and beyond.
How do you plan on differentiating yourself compared to your competitors?
RI: Our success and milestones are achieved by a couple of factors. The first is our clients. We truly listen to their setbacks and from there we identify the best applied digital solution to increase our clients’ production efficiency. At Meraque, we develop our digital solutions in-house to ensure that the product solution is able to solve our clients’ challenges holistically.
We partner with local universities to develop talent which makes all our products “Buatan Malaysia.” Working alongside university faculties and its students nurtures high skilled talent into the workforce. Lastly, our drone solutions and professional relationships with our clients, partners and government agencies earned us a ranking at 19th on the Drone Industry Insights Top Global Drone company in 2020. The international recognition is proof that we are more than a regular drone company, but one that is reputable and prestigious.
Drones are now increasingly used in various industries. Do you think industries across Malaysia are now more open to the usage of drones?
RI: Definitely, Malaysians are now more open to the usage of drones. Having several local companies in the global top drone ranking by Drone Industry Insights, including Meraque ranking at 19th proved that we are capable of developing global drone solutions for various industries.
That is the main benefit of drones- being able to modify its application to suit different needs that are central to the respective industries. Although the initial usage of drones in Malaysia was skewed toward the agricultural sector, we see drone usage expanded to other industries in the country.
For example, in 2019, Meraque with POS Malaysia tested delivering packages to multiple areas in the city. With Pharmaniaga Berhad, Meraque successfully transported medical supplies across the sea from Lumut to Pulau Pangkor. This is beneficial to the country in remote areas. These are just two of many examples that Meraque has embarked on to support the drone ecosystem in Malaysia. We believe that the trend will continue and soon enough it would be a normal occurrence for a drone to be in the sky delivering mail and packages to your doorstep.
In your experience, what are their usual hesitation and what convinces them to take up your services?
RI: Change is usually uncomfortable but essential for growth. Due to that, most industry players’ are hesitant of the acceptance of new digital solutions in their operations. The conventional methods that perhaps have been employed for decades may seem like the obvious choice, but here at Meraque, we provide an alternative view where the technology solution is the best choice. To convince the hesitant industry players, we provide side-by-side operation demonstrations using conventional methods and digital solutions for a period of time. At the end of the agreed period, it is clear that digital solutions form the winning approach.
For instance, the challenge on labour efficiency, where we have labourers spraying pesticide and fertiliser to crops, while another using our First Hybrid Drone Spraying for Agriculture. At the end of 6 months, the crops sprayed with the drone reported better health with less time spent on the plantation. Compared to traditional methods, the drone increased efficiency by up to five times with better crop production and lower cost to our clients. As the saying goes, ‘seeing is believing.’ Therefore, we showcase the positive impact our solutions would provide by having our clients experience it themselves.
Can you share instances where your drones have benefitted industry players and what other industries should utilise drones as part of their operations and how can they benefit from it?
RI: The agricultural sector has greatly benefitted from our digital solutions. Understanding their pain points of labour shortages, increased cost, inefficient use of pesticides and fertilisers were all contributing factors to shift towards digitalisation by procuring Meraque’s solutions. The First Hybrid Drone Spraying for Agriculture was first used as proof of concept in one of our clients’ plantations. Coupled with the Precision Agriculture Software Solution for easier management of the drone assets, our clients were able to see the impact of using the drone on their production. Within a short 3 months, it was clear that our solutions improved production tremendously.
With that, it was easier to convince other plantation owners to adopt our solutions. This pushed us to innovate more solutions that are currently undergoing pilot testing and will be announced soon.
Having a bird’s eye view of an area is beneficial for many sectors such as security and surveillance, and search and rescue. For the latter, Meraque together with Pharmaniaga performed medical drone deliveries during the December 2021 flood that hit Selangor.
With the usage of drones for the operation, Meraque was able to assist the emergency response team, authorities and medical personnel to help flood victims at the site. Drones are a great alternative for monitoring natural disasters and emergency situations. Today, our client list includes Sime Darby and Boustead.
How can we further push for the awareness of drone utilisation among industries in Malaysia?
RI: We are already witnessing an upward trend of drone acceptance and adoption in the country over the years. Showcasing drones at the respective industries’ exhibitions and trade fairs is the easiest way to attract the industries’ attention. Providing real case studies compared to traditional methods would enhance their understanding of the drone and prove why it is important to transition from a conventional approach to a more digitally holistic approach in the respective industries’ operations.
Meraque is planning to establish a Centre of Excellence to showcase our various solutions that are suitable for multiple industries. This would encourage more drone utilisation and easier acceptance by the industry.
What is the drone industry lacking at the moment and what more can be done to improve these lacking areas?
RI: Any new technology requires regulation for public safety. At the same time, it should not hinder the development of technology. Regulators and industry players must work together to strike that balance between safety and technology development. Meraque is supportive of the directives by regulators such as CAAM, JUPEM and MCMC. MRANTI, a Malaysian agency leading the DroneTech Ecosystem Development, has also been supportive. Meraque is open to offering input and recommendations to improve regulation and standards.
From discussions, we realised there is a link between regulation and talent development. By having a skilled drone pilot, the impact of drone accidents would be reduced and productivity improved. Because of that, in 2017, we worked with the Department of Skills Development to create the Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia Level 1,2 and 3 for drone pilots to ensure both- them and the general public- are safe during flight operations.
By pushing for safer measures, we create a conducive environment for testing. With the increasing demand for skilled drone pilots, we support initiatives by government agencies such as HRDCorp in reskilling and upskilling the current workforce.
Can you share more about your future plans and initiatives you are looking at to achieve your goals for the year?
RI: The success of the First Hybrid Drone Spraying for Agriculture and the Precision Agriculture Solution Software are stepping stones for Meraque to develop more in-house solutions and software for sectors beyond agriculture. Currently, we are developing new drone solutions that will complement existing agricultural practices by spraying pesticides and fertiliser on young oil palms. The solutions that we have could also be used in other industries such as the telecommunication industry among others, which we are expanding towards.
The positive growth from the local market in 2020 and 2021 has signalled us to venture into global territories. We are ready to scale to provide benefits to other companies in the region. Hence, this year, Meraque will be raising significant funds from banks and potential venture capitalists to acquire the necessary talent, skills and assets to fulfil the market demands and support our expansion.