Rhinoceros beetles are one of the biggest threats to oil palm crops, attacking plants when they are young and potentially reducing a farm’s yield for years. They also affect the health of workers, since pesticides must be sprayed frequently. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Poladrone wants to change the way farms use pesticides with a combination of drones and automation and analytics software.
The company announced today that it has raised a $ 4.29 million seed round led by Wavemaker Partners, which it says is the largest seed round ever obtained in Malaysia, according to data from Crunchbase. Other participants include the Malaysia Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), which is wholly owned by Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the Malaysian government’s sovereign wealth fund; For example, Capital Limited; and angel investors.
Founded in 2016 by Cheong Jin Xi, Poladrone now operates in Malaysia and Thailand and plans to expand into Indonesia, the world’s largest oil palm producer. Cheong told TechCrunch that Poladrone is profitable, but decided to seek funding after the COVID-19 pandemic and “highlighted the positive impact our technology has on farming communities by creating jobs and skills improvement opportunities.”
The adoption of Poladrone’s drones also increased during the manpower shortage caused by the pandemic, with the startup growing its team from 20 people to more than 80 in less than a year to meet demand. Their seed round will be used for more hires and to scale operations and build more service centers in agricultural areas, where customers can purchase equipment and spare parts.
Cheong first became interested in drones when he was a high school student in Melbourne, Australia, and that led to him earning a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from college.
After Cheong returned to Malaysia, he began looking for potential applications for drone technology and realized that “the agricultural industry made perfect sense”, because drones can fly over large terrains to perform repetitive tasks autonomously, and Its cameras also capture a large amount of data.
Cheong’s interest in agriculture was also inspired by his upbringing in Kuala Lipis, an agricultural city in Pahang state. Many of his family and relatives are involved in agriculture, and his first knowledge focused on the development of Poladrone products.
Rhinoceros beetles are a serious problem during the first three years of an oil palm’s 25-year life cycle, he said, because attacks damage tree growth, delay their maturity and sometimes kill plants.
“The problem is that once the surrounding oil palms mature, replanting is no longer possible, which means that any wasted space on a dead palm will go to waste for the next 22 years,” Cheong said. As a result, oil palm farms generally need preventive pesticide spraying every two weeks for the first two years after the oil palm is planted, then every month until they mature. This is often done by workers with backpack sprayers or on tractors.
In 2020, the company launched Oryctes, developed with the support of Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation, for the precision spot fumigation of rhinoceros beetles and other pests. It also recently launched Mist Drone, which sprays open field crops such as rice paddies, corn, and bananas.
Most of the oil palm farms Poladrone works with are medium to large in size, or around 5,000 hectares or more. “Data analysis and automation become extremely important for farms once they reach this scale,” Cheong said. He added that oil palm farms cover 18.7 million hectares worldwide, and Poladrone sees an accessible and useful market of 4.2 million hectares in Malaysia alone, worth more than $ 1.3 billion. by year. The company also plans to expand its reach to other types of crops, such as rice, corn and sugar cane.
In addition to selling its products, Poladrone’s service centers also provide repairs, training, and workshops, with the goal of increasing drone adoption. Cheong said a week of training is generally needed before workers start using Poladrone’s equipment, which can be operated from smartphones.
In an investment statement, Wavemaker Partners General Partner Gavin Lee said: “Poladrone now works with eight of the 10 largest palm oil farms in Malaysia, an impressive feat that gives us confidence to support the team and his vision of boosting agriculture in Southeast Asia. industry “.