The Palm Scribe

Drones Boost Sustainability in Oil Palm Plantations

Drones used inside Eagle High Plantations in Central Kalimantan to assess the HCV area. / Photo: Eagle High Plantations

“Those who have ever tried to walk across a High Conservation Value (HCV) area would understand how difficult the access through a canopied tropical forest terrain is,” Denys Munang, director of sustainability from Eagle High Plantations Tbk told The Palm Scribe when asked why his company had started to join the bandwagon and use drones for their oil palm plantations, vast areas that are usually located in remote areas.

“That is a simple example of how drones help sustainability in the monitoring of our HCV areas,” Munang said, adding that drones allow palm oil companies to assess HCV areas through aerial reconnaissance, determining if there had been any encroachment and help mark any area accurately for referencing.

Eagle High Plantations has decided to use drones since 2015, as a cost-effective tool providing access to data to the management, from an aerial perspective. It allows the management to cover bigger areas from a certain location, depending on the type of drone.

“It is both time saving and increases labor productivity,” Munang said.

Two types of drones are often used in oil palm plantations. A fixed-wing drone is used in the early phase to conduct aerial surveys of plantations because they have a longer flying time, able to stay in the air much longer. The drone takes photos for later processing with mapping software.

The aerial survey maps are used for different purposes depending on the development stages. In the early stages, it is used to detect vacant spots in new planting as the planted palm had died or the contractors or workers assigned to plant them missed the spot. As the palms mature, the surveys can also detect disease or palms that have nutrient deficiencies.

Image: Insight Robotics

The second type is the hover drones, generally used for spot monitoring to cover large areas and give a wider field of view with shots taken by cameras installed on the drone viewable on the ground simultaneously.

These drones can also be used to detect and prevent land and forest fires that have often plagued oil palm plantations, especially during dry seasons.

“Yes, many plantation companies already use it effectively for fire detection. Conventional fire detection prior to drones was a combination of manned fire watchtowers and foot/motorized patrols on the ground. However those conventional fire detection measures have their limitations,” Munang said.

Current regulations require one watchtower for every 500-hectare areas and a standard fire tower is 15 meters tall. The field of view is rapidly reduced if the palm trees are older and if the fire tower is not placed upon an elevated area. In comparison, a drone is able to fly to 100 to 200 meters high and have a horizontal flying radius of one kilometer.

A fire tower costs between Rp100 million to Rp150 million to build, while depending on the type, a drone may cost between Rp30 million to Rp40 million and are also mobile.

“I personally have used the drones during the fire season in 2019 and it was very useful to detect the location of the fires raging outside our plantation,” he said adding that without the use of the drone, the company would not have been able to assess the potential threat of the fire outside its concession areas.

Satellite hot spot data may point you to a hot spot, but to determine whether the hot spot will become a fire requires visual confirmation and access is always a problem when you are out in the countryside.

“The drone allowed us to survey the fire that was raging far outside our concession area and to determine if we needed to prepare our fire suppression equipment in case the fire burns towards our area.”

One of the players providing services for oil palm plantations is a Hong Kong-based technology company named Insight Robotics. Servicing the environment and plantation industries operating in several countries, it started operation in Indonesia in 2013, with the development of the Aerial Survey business unit.

Since the beginning of 2017 Insight Robotics has started shifting the focus of its air survey service business to more engagement in image processing and analysis, including direct verification of reports for plantations.

“If the client entrusts the process from the initial stage of flight planning and photo taking, we have a team of experts in the field of remote sensing in palm oil,” Diwantara Sebastian, sales manager of Insight Robotics Indonesia told The Palm Scribe in a written statement.

Until today, the company has handled six projects for four palm oil companies, including from among the five biggest palm oil companies in Indonesia and Malaysia.

“For these projects, we are focusing on data processing from images we obtained from satellite imagery. The images obtained are then processed using artificial intelligence that we have developed to reach an accuracy of up to 95 percent, which can be enhanced with quality control from humans,” Sebastian said.

Most oil palm plantations are according to the company, still focused on using drones for mapping and monitoring fires, and not so much for fertilization purposes, due to the risks of losing drones because of the heavy liquid fertilizer.

“For fertilization, I haven’t met a plantation company that has adopted drone technology yet, because of the high risk, if the drone falls or disappears. Companies still consider using human labor, which is much cheaper,” he said.

With the many challenges faced by the palm oil industry, drones have proven to be an effective tool to help boost sustainability in the industry.

“I believe we have only scratched the surface of drone application in plantations. There are certainly many applications that can be used, especially with the convergence of technologies.” Denys Munang of the Eagle High Plantations Tbk said.

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