Entrepreneurs: Flying high

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 31, 2018 - January 06, 2019.
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Kamarul Muhamed started his career as an auditor at a UK-based firm but called it quits just three years into the job. He was more interested in technology and wanted to start a company of his own.

He then joined a software development company and rose through the ranks to become country manager in only four years. But this was not enough. Basically, he wanted to run his own show.

“I am a huge risk taker — calculated, of course — so that was why I ditched accounting. It was nice, but very sober. I am the innovative type. I thrive in an environment where I can develop ideas and put them to work,” says Kamarul.

He had always been fascinated by aviation and even contemplated becoming a pilot. But this would not have satisfied his entrepreneurial spark. So, he ended up starting a company that dealt in flying machines in 2015.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, were previously the domain of the military or geeky hobbyists. Today, they have become mainstream, available to the masses at an affordable price for many uses, typically for aerial cinematography.

Aerodyne offers a wide range of services using its artificial intelligence-driven drones that are also equipped with Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. Its services include geospatial intelligence, emergency response services, 2D and 3D mapping, precision agriculture, inspection and asset management and project monitoring.

Aerodyne has evolved into a data-driven business, aiming to deliver actionable data that can be used to make positive changes in their clients’ operations. The group started small, confining its activities to Malaysia until two years ago. Most of its clients were companies that owned huge installations, which were difficult and expensive to monitor and maintain, such as renewable energy and utility companies.

“Take wind turbines. They are constantly generating revenue. So, operators want them to be always up and running. If anything happened to the blades, it would take months to repair,” says Kamarul.

“We use drones to inspect the blades. We use our software to detect defects and then classify them according to severity. We then use predictive analysis to churn out a report and alert the company if there is a fault. In this way, we help companies take care of their assets.”

Aerodyne ensures that the uptime of its utility and renewable energy-related clients is maximised. This is measured by a reliability indicator called the System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI). The lower the outage time, the more reliable the utility. To reduce this, companies need to ensure that their infrastructure is in good shape, which is where Aerodyne comes in, says Kamarul.

“Our job is to discover a problem before it happens. For this, we inspect their equipment and collect all kinds of data — be it thermal, ultrasound or others — and then pump it to the cloud. After that, we analyse the data and churn out reports. The companies receive these reports so they can do maintenance as and when necessary,” he adds.

“Basically, it is about making sure the utility companies are operating efficiently. Of course, they have been doing this before we came into the picture, but it was manual and very labour-intensive. They had to send people to do everything, using ropes, crates and helicopters, which is very costly and inefficient. Our solutions are disruptive because they are faster, cheaper and better.”

“Faster, cheaper and better” is actually the company’s philosophy. Kamarul was inspired by Japanese beef bowl restaurant chain Yoshinoya, whose tagline is hayai (fast), yasui (cheap) and umai (delicious).

“It really struck a chord. When we go out to sell our services, our commitment is to deliver solutions that are faster, cheaper and better,” he says.

The first foreign market Aerodyne ventured into was Australia. “We presented our solutions to a utility company over there and were pleasantly surprised to find that we were exactly what the doctor ordered. That is why we managed to penetrate the market so quickly. Other markets soon followed suit,” says Kamarul.

Today, the group has become truly international with offices in Japan, Brunei, the US, UAE, Chile, Denmark,  Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and the UK and a presence in more than 20 countries. The team has grown to 240 people, who inspect more than 200,000 assets around the world.

Investors are starting to take notice. Aerodyne completed its Series A round of funding early this year. Axiata Digital Innovation Fund invested an undisclosed amount, referred to as “double-digit millions”, in the company.

It is now looking for the next round of funding, which will be channelled into more R&D. “Three years ago, we had only three people in our R&D department. Now, we have more than 30 and we are looking to double this in the next two years,” says Kamarul.

He has great plans for Aerodyne. He wants it to be Malaysia’s first tech unicorn and he thinks it is not that far from achieving this. In the next couple of years, he would also like to take the company public.

“We have achieved so much in these past few years and I think we can do more. We have achieved international recognition with clients in countries such as Japan, the US and China. In March, Drone Industry Insights even ranked us No 7 out of more than 200 global drone-operating service providers,” says Kamarul.

“A couple of months ago, we participated in a global RFI (request for information) by PwC London and we were the first to be onboarded. We are now its only preferred partner. It also ranked us No 1 in several categories, including innovation, delivery and future of drone services.

“While it is nice to know that we are being recognised, there is still a lot of hard work to do. Hopefully, we will have more exciting news soon.”