Office workers with Genting Plantations Bhd. in Jakarta took part in an investigation last October to identify sources of fire in the palm oil plantations. Drones helped the company spot fires in remote and inaccessible areas by collecting images from flying up to 400 meters (about 1,300 feet) above Genting’s oil palm. Palm oil, the world’s most-consumed vegetable oil, part of a technology drive has also become one of the fastest-growing markets for commercial unmanned aircraft.

“We monitor satellite images twice a day and if there are any hot-spots near our boundaries, we’ll alert the plantation to take action,” said Narayanan Ramanathan, Genting’s senior vice president of plantation advisory. “If it’s too far away and we can’t access it by road, we’ll send a drone to check.”

22.3 million hectares (86,100 square miles) of Malaysia and Indonesia consist of oil-palm plantations. It is an area almost the size of the U.K. The industry represents fertile ground for drone sales.

palm oil plantations
South Asian Palm Oil Plantations

According to Allied Market Research, agricultural industries accounted for more than a quarter of the $2.67 billion in commercial drone sales in 2016.

Agricultural drones are thriving the palm oil business

“In the coming years, use of commercial drones in palm oil plantations is poised to show huge potential,” Yash Doshi, who tracks the aerospace and defense sector for Allied Market Research in Pune, India, stated. Greater use of smartphones has partly led to growing awareness about sustainable farming and precision agriculture, as well as government programs.

According to Selbyville, worldwide drone sales to agricultural businesses could top $8 billion by 2026. A human can cover only 5 hectares of oil palms a day, while a drone can capture images of about 2,500 hectares. Thus, drones are basically an efficiency-boosting boon for the palm oil industry. Not only can they collect data that can be used to decide if crops have enough water and nutrients but also find leakages in irrigation systems. DJI recently launched a top-tier agriculture drone which helps in the same.

palm oil plantations

Drones offer a shift from traditional agriculture

According to Aerodyne Group, agriculture has been an important market for the past couple of years. Kamarul Azman, the Chief Executive Officer of Kuala Lumpur-based company said that they get most of its revenue from construction. However, they expect the proportion of sales to plantation owners to increase beyond the current 10%. “Agriculture is the next big thing for us,” Kamarul said. “We do know that the market is increasing. We’re focusing more on it.”

“The increasing demand for unmanned aerial vehicles may reflect the need to improve efficiency in the wake of lower crude palm oil prices.”

“Plantation companies are very traditional,” Kamarul said, adding that they have a tendency to be “a little bit slow” in adopting new technology. “Everyone is clamoring to save costs and increase their efficiency.”