Agriculture is one of the sectors where artificial intelligence (AI) has proliferated to raise efficiency, flexibility, productivity and quality while enhancing sustainability greening initiatives. With proven success in other countries, Malaysia has been aiming to implement AI into its agricultural sector to boost food output and reverse the chronic growth in food trade deficit over the period of 1989-2021. Although there are challenges to overcome, the application of AI-controlled drones and robots will help make our country more food self-sufficient and contribute to its digital transformation.
Malaysia has undergone digitalization since 2010, with its infrastructure increasingly equipped with Internet of Things (IOT), big data analytics, cloud computing and cyber security systems to support a wide range of economic activities. One sector that can greatly benefit from the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) is agriculture. Countries such as Taiwan and Korea have already implemented the use of drones and robots in their agriculture with much success.
In light of this, the Malaysian government allocated RM4.82 billion from its 2020 National Budget to modernizing the agricultural sector in order to improve food security and safety as well as to generate higher income via attracting young agropreneurs. This article introduces the direction that Malaysia should take to expand the use of robots and drones in agriculture followed by a profound assessment of the critical state of food demand-supply deficits, the potential upgrading that robots and drones will provide, and the strategies that will be necessary to appropriate adequate synergies from government policies envisioned in the Twelfth Malaysia Plan (2021-2025).
Food Trade Deficit
Over the period of 1990-2019, the food trade balance (FTB) has experienced several large falls following initially an appreciating ringgit that attracted cheap imports from abroad while making exports expensive. From -14.1 percent in 1990, the FTB fell to -31.6 percent in 1997 before improving in trend terms to -21.3 percent in 2019. Nevertheless, it has remained negative, demonstrating that Malaysia is still dependent on food imports to meet the country’s consumer needs (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Food Trade Balance, Malaysia, 1990-2019
Note: Trade Balance = (X-M)/(X+M) where X and M refer to exports and imports respectively.
Source: Compiled from Department of Statistics, Malaysia
Furthermore, the self-sufficiency percentage of round cabbage, chilis, and ginger fell in trend terms from 61.9 percent, 49.1 percent, and 24.0 percent respectively in 2016 to 37.5 percent, 30.9 percent, and 18.9 percent in 2020 (see Figure 2). As many food items, such as rice are essentials, it is vital that we must use revolutionary solutions in order to reverse this dramatic fall. Doing so requires a multi-pronged approach, combining biotechnology research into more adaptable and higher-yield hybrid varieties with the implementation of AI technology to raise our agricultural productivity and reduce production costs while also addressing our reliance on foreign labour.
Figure 2: Self Sufficiency Rates, Selected Farm Vegetables, Malaysia, 2016-2020
Source: Afzanizam (2022)
Drones and Robots in Food Farming
Robots are increasingly being utilized in ploughing and harvesting in farms, while drones are playing critical roles in gathering and monitoring information, as well as spraying insecticides and fertilizers. Such developments have raised the self-sufficiency rates of food items even in small land-scarce countries, such as Taiwan. Indeed, rice self-sufficiency in the country had risen by 90% in 2017.
Robots can autonomously plough fields, weed, harvest fruits and load them onto lorries, which can also function without drivers. Should Malaysia introduce robots in palm oil cultivation, harvesting and transportation, it will greatly enhance the efficiency and productivity of the industry. Likewise, robots can also be utilized in paddy cultivation and harvesting to provide similar benefits. In doing so, both developments can help the country sharply reduce dependency on foreign labour (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Robots ploughing fields
Source: Farmwise, accessed on January 31, 2022
Drones play a critical role in detecting changes in air temperatures and humidity levels, inspecting the texture, appearance, and structure of crops and fruits, spraying fertilizers and pesticides while also monitoring the amount used, and offering diagnosis and potential corrective services. Some drones can function economically in 5-hectare farms (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: Drones operating in farms
Challenges and Choices
Although drones and robots have already been introduced in Malaysia and the government has been allocating significant investments to promote their usage in agriculture as well as broadening the reach of digital infrastructure, there are still several challenges that could hinder the diffusion and implementation of AI through deployment of robots and drones into food agriculture.
Many of the country’s rural areas still lack proper access to online broadband cables, presenting a significant barrier to the digitalization of agriculture, especially given that robots and drones require IoTs and cloud connections in order to function. In light of this, the Twelfth Malaysia Plan had allocated significant investments into expanding the broadband infrastructure in the country. However, it is important that we must learn how to synergize the placement of broadband cables with population densities, increasing the connectivity between the populaces while also preventing the occurrence of a digital divide. Doing so will require convincing these rural populations of the long-term benefits of using digital technology and connecting online.
The cost of manufacturing robots and drones had been a barrier to their implementation for a long time, but with production costs falling over time, many Malaysian entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this change in the market to successfully develop new robots and drones for commercial use. In this regard, Aerodyne has done incredibly well by becoming the world’s leading drone service provider by 2021. Likewise, Dream Edge has also done exceptionally well to fabricate and supply robots. As such, it will be good to mobilize these suppliers to provide a smooth interface that rural farmers will be able to use effectively and efficiently without requiring much training or knowledge.
As the main market for these robots and drones are small-scale farms whose owners are unlikely to afford the robots and drones individually, the government should promote collective ownership strategies (adapted from FELDA’s framework for collective ploughing and milling) where farmers share ownership of these instruments, further strengthening the social bonds within their communities especially when working towards a common goal. Furthermore, given that small-scale farms will not have the facilities required to maintain a large-scale operation of drones and robots, the government will have to establish external service and maintenance centres in critical locations throughout the country.
The diffusion of AI into farming will also need strong support from intermediary organizations, such as science and technology (ST) parks and the incubators in them, as well as management to support incremental and radical innovations to constantly solve problems and develop new AI instruments in farming. The existing ST and the incubators should be integrated with the government’s plan to assist farmers in learning how to effectively utilise AI instruments, in addition to supporting both problem solving and creating new instruments to raise productivity.
As most rural farmers are unfamiliar with AI or online technology, training them to develop the necessary knowledge and skills is a vital part of promoting and diffusing the use of robots and drones in agriculture. The focus on technical and vocational training should be extended beyond precision engineering and mechatronics to include the moulding of coders, developers, designers, and digital coordination skills. Such a focus must be strong to ensure that the expected labour force of tomorrow is evolved in sync with Malaysia’s transition into a fully digitalized society.
Finally, it is important that the roadmap contained within the Twelfth Malaysia Plan is augmented with targets for achievement, and an appraisal mechanism that is reviewed every year to ensure that the targets are met. The appraisal mechanism should include stringent vetting of selections, monitoring, funds allocations, and ex-post assessments. These assessments must emphasize the need for reorientation, tightening of execution, and recalibration if necessary, so that the exercise of transforming the agricultural sector to be AI-driven is met on or before the deadlines set.
Though we are still far from having a fully digitized agricultural sector, we are well on the way there. With greater promotion and support from the government, farmers will be encouraged to modernize and deploy this technology on a larger scale. Once the efficiency, productivity and yields of our farms improves, we will be a step closer to achieving one of our goals for the Twelfth Malaysia Plan.
Author and researcher featured: Distinguished Professor Dato' Dr. Rajah Rasiah Asia-Europe Institute firstname.lastname@example.org