When drone-based solutions company Aerodyne displayed its air mobility vehicle at the 2019 Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition, many Malaysians took to social media to ridicule it.
The concept of a ‘flying car’ - of which the lithium-ion battery-powered prototype was deemed to look like - became a subject of mockery. Some called the idea far fetched. Others sneered at it, mocking the homegrown company’s vision.
But Aerodyne founder and Group CEO Kamarul Muhamad not only took the criticism in his stride, he was encouraged by the conversation stirred.
“Air mobility is certain to happen,” says Kamarul. “I can bet my life on it,” he adds with conviction.
He may not be too far off. Around the world, companies are vigorously exploring the concept of air mobility, where packages and even people can be transported through flying drone vehicles.
This is a long term play, it will not happen overnight. Air mobility) will become mainstream by 2030
Uber had its eyes on air travel as early as 2016 and is getting serious about deployment through its Elevate program. Airbus’ autonomous, electric air taxis Vahana completed a series of test flights in February and expects to take to the skies in mid-2020s.
Japan’s Toyota, meanwhile, is eyeing an ambitious public debut; it wants to light the torch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony using a flying car.
“When the Americans build a railway connecting East and West coasts, they were resented because people were used to riding horses then,” says Kamarul. “It’s the same thing now. This (the criticism) is expected but it will happen anyway.”
“But people are starting to understand what air mobility is all about,” he adds optimistically. “And it is the role of the industry, people like me, to educate the public. It is the role of the government and regulators too.”
“This is a long term play, it will not happen overnight. It (air mobility) will become mainstream by 2030,” Kamarul predicts.
Aerodyne - Our Aspiration is Global
Barely four years-old, Aerodyne has positioned itself as the world’s seventh largest drone provider, serving 24 countries.
Kamarul, a former accountant and IT specialist, carved a drone division out of his existing media production agency, with an initial intention to provide aerial imagery services.
But Aerodyne quickly made inroads into enterprise management and solutions when he realised that clients needed much more than just aerial data; they had to be turned into business analytics and insights too.
Today, the Petaling Jaya-based firm serves a majority of Malaysia’s telecommunications and energy companies, providing industrial infrastructure inspections, 3D mappings, emergency responses, and asset management solutions, among others.
“Malaysia represents 80 to 90 percent of our total revenue,” says Kamarul. “But our projection shows that Malaysia will only make up 10 percent in three years time.”
"Not because Malaysia business is shrinking; the other countries are coming online fast,” he adds, illustrating Aerodyne’s aggressive growth plans.
We do predictive analysis, we provide business intelligence. That’s what we are good at
In March, the firm received a new round of funding from Japan-based Drone Fund, which they will use to expand their position in Japan, also giving it the boost it needs to ramp up investments to develop new air mobility technologies.
Aerodyne recently expanded into Russia and India. It is closing in on the Middle Eastern markets and is eyeing to break into the United States soon, says Kamarul.
“A lot of people think that this (the solutions we provide) would come from a country like America. But that’s not true. In terms of the depths and completeness of solutions, most are nowhere near where we are.”
“And we did not know this as well. It’s only when we started to go (operate) outside that we realised we have something to offer that others don’t have yet,” says Kamarul, adding that Australia and Japan were among the first markets it went into; both giving the ‘validation’ Aerodyne needed to become a global player.
“Our solutions go very deep and are integrated with customers’ existing Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. We do predictive analysis, we provide business intelligence. That’s what we are good at.”
“In our operations, it is quite common for us to unlock up to 20 percent cost savings for our customers,” says Kamarul, driving his point home.
Aerodyne's Philosophy - Providing Solutions Faster, Better, Cheaper
Geographical expansion aside, Aerodyne is focused on expanding solutions offered, with plans to invest about RM20 million ringgit into research and development over the next year.
For Kamarul, while scaling up remains very much his key focus right now, it is his hope that Aerodyne can play a leading role in developing Malaysia’s largely nascent drone industry ecosystem.
Malaysia, he views, must not drag its feet if it wants to tap into the global drone market, valued at USD100 billion by 2020 - and air mobility, says Kamarul, will be an opportunity too large to ignore.
“For air mobility to happen, you need technology, regulation and acceptance.”
At the moment, we have to go through three or four regulators to get an approval for a drone operation
“At the moment, we have to go through three or four regulators to get an approval for a drone operation.”
“It hinders the opportunity to operate very quickly,” says Kamarul, adding that approval for permission to operate can take up to two weeks at times.
He cites the United Kingdom’s Permissions For Commercial Ops (PfCO)- a ‘license’ that allows a drone operator to use a small, unmanned aircraft under 20kg for commercial projects - as a good regulation to help speed up processes.
“Also, for this technology to be really disruptive, we need to fly the drones beyond visual line of sight.”
Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations is considered a tipping point for commercial drone industry expansion as it enables service providers to conduct complex drone operations. It also enables true air mobility - unmanned drones with no pilot - to take off and land.
At the moment, drones cannot fly higher than 400 feet in Malaysia. “We do not have the framework here at the moment,” says Kamarul.
“But we are already engaging the regulator, Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia. We are also talking to the Ministry of Entrepreneurial Development and Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDeC).”
"Efforts are being made. I’m seeing the (ecosystem) gravitate towards something better,” Kamarul concludes.
Aerodyne - Drone Market in Consumer Sector Poised to Take Off
There’s no denying it’s an exciting time for Aerodyne; it is tech-ready and already a global service provider. The next step, says Kamarul, is to position itself in untapped markets, and to ‘keep solving problems’.
“We have a simple mantra here - to use technology to do things faster, better and cheaper.”
“This is the very essence of Industry 4.0, and this is what we do here at Aerodyne.”
“You just have to keep solving problems - that’s the spirit of entrepreneurship because problems are bound to be there,” he says.
Aerodyne - profit-making two years into its operations - is in the midst of closing its Series B round. “We are only fundraising because we see the opportunity to scale.” Kamarul aims to list the company in the next four years.
“That’s our ultimate objective,” says Kamarul. “We are looking to raise another round Series C next year. The next level could be Silicon Valley or where there are global investors that can offer bigger ticket sizes.”
For the time being, Kamarul, who describes himself as ‘extremely busy globally’, is overseeing operations in about a dozen countries, manned by a 200-strong workforce. Aerodyne is seemingly on a solid growth path, as it gets ready to be at right places, and at the right time, for when self-flying taxis or delivery drones really take off.
Aerodyne Expects Air Mobility to Become Mainstream by 2030