Aerodyne Group founder and CEO Kamarul A Muhamed still does not know who nominated him for the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2020 Malaysia, but he is eternally grateful. The 53-year-old topped not only the Technology Entrepreneur category, but also emerged the overall winner and will represent the nation to compete for the coveted EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year award at the annual event in June, which traditionally is held in Monaco. “When I find out who nominated us, I will really have to thank them profusely,” he quips.
As is always the case, there is no way to tell who will emerge victorious as the competition is stiff. But after understanding a little more about Kamarul’s visionary entrepreneurial journey, his win makes perfect sense — Aerodyne is a business far ahead of its time. A DT3 (drone tech, data tech and digital transformation) enterprise solutions provider, it is also a pioneer in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) as an enabling technology for large-scale data operations, analytics and process optimisation. “We use drones in enterprise applications,” he says, when I ask for a simpler explanation. “The drone itself is just a flying machine — our expertise lies in getting the drones to capture valuable data to aid pivotal decision-making processes.”
Armed with qualifications in accounting and finance, and later on information systems management, Kamarul worked in London for a decade before he came home to Malaysia and joined an American software company. Then, he decided it was time to strike out on his own. While he was not one to disregard the knowledge and insights he had gained from his employers over the years, he did feel he saw possibilities that others hadn’t seen yet.
Aerodyne was initially a drone division of a media company Kamarul founded in 2006. In 2014, he carved it out as a separate entity that would allow him to pursue more focused opportunities in drone-based enterprise solutions. He co-founded the company with his wife, whom he says is the voice of reason who tempers his constant drive and energy. One of his four children is involved in the company too.
“In our first six months, we were still testing the waters, so to speak. We only knew that drones had come to a stage where they could be IoT (Internet of Things) devices, which made us realise that they had enterprise applications,” begins Kamarul. “We started out by building our own drones. But within six months, we pivoted to providing enterprise solutions to our customers. Today, we are a tech MNC (multinational corporation) with customers in more than 32 countries. Our customers are large corporations and we help them take care of their critical infrastructure like power lines, ports, highways and bridges and wind farms. We also do surveillance and security, which needs swarm intelligence — this means piecing together data collected by multiple drones. Our latest venture helps farmers with precision agriculture, where drones and IoT aids in increasing crop yields and profitability.”
He recalls facing quite a bit of difficulty convincing naysayers that this was a viable business opportunity. “We were one of the pioneers in this field,” he points out. He has this to say to anyone in a similar situation. “When you have a common idea, everyone will believe in you. But if it’s unconventional, no one will, so you must have a very strong conviction.” He has had the last laugh, though, as Aerodyne was ranked No 2 in the world last year by Germany-based Drone Industry Insights and currently has offices in 35 countries.
Having said that, what Aerodyne is proposing sounds very futuristic even today — what more so many years ago, when our collective understanding of AI and these types of technologies was far more limited? Adding to this, drones were generally thought of as toys or what hobbyists would use — in fact, wedding videos shot by drones were particularly in vogue at one point. Understandably, this may not have been the kind of thing that a respectable technopreneur should be affiliated with. But unbeknownst to many was the fact that drones were also being used by the military, which meant these had the potential to be serious pieces of equipment. What Kamarul sought to do was find a middle ground between the two extremes.
“Back then, there were no enterprise-level drones at all. So, we started out by using hobby-level drones and tinkering with them — adding sensors, for example — which lets us use them for our clients who ran petrochemical plants,” he says. But Aerodyne’s business really took off when he got into the construction industry, where delays of any kind — especially in the case of mega projects, of which Malaysia had plenty — were extremely expensive. This, Kamarul says, often comes from not having enough information to make crucial decisions or getting it too late.
“I was talking to a property developer and he was telling me how critical information comes to him about two months too late, so his decisions were two months behind,” he says. “My pitch to him was that I would be able to digitise things, making it possible for him to be on site while not having to actually be there — that was our first project. It was when we started hiring engineers as well, because you need skilled people to interpret the data that was coming in. I was very surprised by just how much it helped our clients, and we grew from one site to 50 in just 18 months. The growth led us to realise that this could work well beyond just this one industry.”
That brings us to where Aerodyne is today, and what DT3 even means. Kamarul shifts in his chair eagerly. “The first D is drone tech, meaning we provide the solutions for capturing data using drones. We have all sorts of sensors to collect the relevant data that clients want. But actually, this is the smallest part of what we do. The second part is data tech, which we don’t just get from drones but also satellites, for example. From this data, our clients gain insights into their operations, their assets — so, it is typically quite an expensive and lengthy exercise. This is what we call prescriptive and predictive analysis.”
This process that ordinarily takes about two weeks as obtaining the data, collating it and then interpreting it is no easy task. Aerodyne completely disrupted this by being able to supply the same amount of information in real time. Kamarul has several examples at the tip of his tongue and shares one to explain this point. “Using AI, drones can ascertain whether a certain asset is compromised in any way and whether it needs to be changed or serviced, so clients are able to plan ahead of time. This means the decisions they make today are long-term ones that make more financial sense for their companies. If you know now that an asset will need servicing, you will save so much money and effort by addressing that before it completely breaks down.”
Meanwhile, the third D is where everything comes together — integrating digital technology into all areas of its clients’ businesses, which changes how they operate and deliver value to their stakeholders.
After establishing a presence in the construction, oil and gas and power industries, Aerodyne has begun to ply the waters of agriculture. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the world population is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050. To meet that demand, global food production will have to increase by 70%. Precision agriculture is a key part of achieving this demand, and is what Aerodyne is able to provide through its proprietary super app, Agrimor. It allows farmers, agencies and agriculture service providers to request drones and pilots for agriculture seeding, spraying, plant analysis, mapping and much more.
“Our country relies a lot on imports, which means our yield is not enough to feed all Malaysians even though we have a lot of land. That isn’t a sustainable way to go forward! We don’t produce enough for our needs, and honestly, this problem isn’t unique to Malaysia. What precision agriculture does is help farmers increase output, reduce costs and enhance efficiency. We can use sensors on drones to acquire valuable insights into the health of the crops, which then leads to making informed, detailed decisions — maybe, instead of spraying fertiliser everywhere, they can use specific kinds in certain areas that need it.”
Ten years ago, being a drone pilot was not a profession that anyone would have heard of, let alone encouraged their child to pursue. As parents ourselves, we joke about what it’s like having to understand a world so different from the one we grew up in. But while Kamarul believes we have yet to tap the full potential of the industry, the nature of technology also means that things will change very rapidly. “Drones may have brought us to this point, but it will not take us into the future. A drone pilot may be a profession now, but I constantly tell my team not to rely on this being a job forever. At some point, drones won’t need to be piloted anymore.”
For example, in the case of automated drone deliveries, which Kamarul says is not the far-off notion we think it is anymore. “I use the phrase ‘drone economy’ a lot, which is a time in the future when drone technology will play a significant role in our daily lives. That’s actually our vision — advancing humanity through drone intelligence. There have been many revolutions in the past, and the next one will be related to AI. Soon, the collective capabilities of machines will exceed human intelligence, and we are about 15 years away from that. It will liberate us, and it will change us. Yes, it’s scary, but there are upsides to it. I think we will have more equality because machines have zero biases, and we will make decisions based purely on merit. Humans won’t have to do mundane or unsafe work anymore. We will be able to use our time for more meaningful jobs.”
It’s like The Jetsons, I marvel, and Kamarul believes that kind of life is not too far in the future. “I can’t wait, to be honest,” he laughs.
When the pandemic broke out last year, Aerodyne’s operations were impacted like everyone else’s. Ahead of the Movement Control Order announcement last March, the company was on track for outstanding 2020 results, with huge plans for global growth. As lockdowns were announced all over the world, it started to feel the pinch — its hospitality clients in the US were the first to cancel major contracts while local customers put work on hold. Kamarul was clear that none of his staff would lose their jobs, so he redirected those in redundant roles to government agencies such as Polis Diraja Malaysia, and summoned the rest of the team to research new ideas and novel applications in industries that were still operating actively, unaffected by the pandemic.
That was how the company got into agriculture, for example, while work is ongoing to tackle deep tech, which is anchored on swarm technology, and drone delivery. Kamarul says that in the lifestyle sphere, there are incredible applications in environmental conservation and sustainability as well as unmanned personal mobility — get into a pod, enter your destination and arrive without doing anything. “The opportunities are endless, really, we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
The effects of the pandemic would spill over into 2021, but the EOY nomination was a positive development for Aerodyne. The win was hard won, though, Kamarul jokes. “EY put us through a very rigorous process. We’ve won other awards before, and they all pale in comparison to what EY put us through,” he laughs. “Jokes aside, I appreciated that process because it also put the spotlight on the staff and how a company or a CEO is nothing without a strong team.”
According to Tan Sri Dr Rebecca Sta Maria, executive director of the APEC Secretariat and chief judge of the EOY 2020 Malaysia judging panel, Kamarul was the top choice among a list of extremely qualified and successful nominees. “The panel of judges was unanimous in its decision and agreed that Kamarul was a trailblazer in his purposeful endeavour to shape and impact not only his business but lead the industry at large,” she said.
Interestingly, Aerodyne was not the only drone-related business in the competition this year — the top nominee in the Emerging Entrepreneur category was Armi Majid, managing director of Ofo Tech, which specialises in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones, AI and IoT-based technology.
“I have so much respect for Armi and the team at Ofo; they are amazing,” says Kamarul. “The industry isn’t very large, so we all know each other and we all have unique identities, so there are many opportunities to learn from each other. What’s most important is for the industry to grow, so we don’t see each other as competitors — we meet frequently and talk all the time. To have two people in the same industry in the EOY programme is a definite acknowledgement of how much potential this industry has. Malaysia is not known as a tech exporter, which means internationally, we have to work twice as hard as our peers in Japan or the US. This win validates us as a company and our contribution to the industry as a whole.”
Kamarul’s EOY win comes at the end of a very challenging year. The annual EOY event also proceeded under unusual circumstances — missing were the cocktails and panel discussions, networking opportunities with past nominees and, of course, the glamorous black-tie event held to fete the winner. But in some ways, stripping back to the basics allowed EY and its list of nominees to see the awards for what they are at their very core — a platform to showcase the nation’s best entrepreneurs and celebrate their unbounded ambition to deliver innovation, growth and prosperity that will transform our world.
This article first appeared on Apr 5, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.