Remote sensing is used around the world to gather data from locations that are otherwise dangerous or inaccessible: from monitoring the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon Basin, to collecting information of the glacial features in the Arctic, to uncovering the topography of the ocean depths. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (also known as UAVs or drones), satellites and radars are some of the most recognizable tools utilized in remote sensing activities.
The range of applications for the technology is growing with head spinning velocity. Everyday there is a new application: delivering packages, painting tall buildings, prospecting for gold, looking for oil slicks, inspecting power transmission lines, looking for land mines and helping with disaster evaluation and relief. The list continues to grow daily.
In Cambodia, the high-tech industry is still fairly underdeveloped, and technologies such as remote sensing are still uncommon and under-utilized. “While this technology is very new, it’s been a bit slow to reach Cambodia,” proclaims Jimmy Jacks, the managing director of SM Waypoint, a high-technology firm specialising in remote sensing that entered the Cambodian market recently. Remote sensing has, so far, been used sparingly in the Kingdom to, for example, track forest cover change or search for archaeological sites buried beneath the surface of the earth.
For Jacks, Cambodia’s inexperience with remote sensing is both a blessing and a curse: “[SM Waypoint] has no real competition. [On the other hand,] many do not understand how our services can actually help them make money by saving labour costs, increasing efficiency in carrying out tasks, and increasing crop yield.”
In Cambodia, SM Waypoint focuses on agriculture, helping planters improve crop yields. It is precisely in areas such as agriculture — where a small drop in crop yield can threaten the very subsistence of small farmers — that the technology may have its most noteworthy impact. “Crop is critical to farmers,” says Jacks, “We believe we can help [them] in truly significant ways.” The challenge for SM Waypoint is to figure out how to reach the group of small and vulnerable rice farmers. “We are looking at several models on how to best reach the small farmer, the person who would benefit the most,” he says.
To fulfill its mission, SM Waypoint counts on large UAVs capable of covering 900 hectares per hour. In a single flight, a drone can collect thousands of sharp images, with a resolution high enough to allow for the spotting of diseased sections on the leaf of a tree. This way the company can detect diseased or stressed plants, thus providing great assistance to farmers in predicting crop yield.
SM Waypoint and the handful of other high-tech companies operating in the country are working on a less-than-ideal legal context. To comply with the country’s safety and surveillance laws, companies wishing to fly a drone must submit project information to the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) for approval before every flight. The process can be tedious and sluggish, severely curtailing companies’ room to maneuver. The government is aware of the situation and is working, via the SSCA and other bodies, towards the development of a suitable regulatory environment, one that would ensure flights are only conducted under safe, internationally recognized standards. SM Waypoint is part of the process, holding regular meetings with the SSCA on the establishment of new regulations. “I don’t feel the government is anti-drone. They are just anti-chaos, as they should be,” Jacks concludes.