Speculation is rife about the impact of AI and advanced technology of the work- force of the future. Dr Romesh Ranawana, CTO and Co-Founder of Tengri Aero Industries believes that drastic changes are ahead. “People are going to be looking at automating and replicating almost anything over the next 50 years.”
Ranawana’s company, Tengri, builds drones and drone applications. They can reverse engineer a drone based on requirements around AI, payload, cameras, speed, range and endurance, then build the drone from the bottom up.
The critical pieces of hardware are companion computers. One, a 14-layer microchip designed from scratch in Sri Lanka, sits in the drone, connecting everything on board and relaying it back to the ground. The second, a ground station, allows the user to access the information and control the drone. Currently, the drones have a range of around 4km, but development is finishing on a 4G version, meaning as long as there is a data connection on a mobile network the drone can be anywhere.
A drone in Trincomalee can be controlled from Colombo. The potential is vast, says Ranawana. As well as the hardware, Tengri builds drone applications. Their security drone, launched mid-2019, is already used by three international militaries. Using a drone for surveillance and reconnaissance solves some of the security and logistical challenges militaries face, as experts can remain safe in another location.
A second major project is a bush fire mapping system for the Australian government. Tengri is building a drone that will automatically map the fire boundaries and upload the information in real-time. This will replace manned helicopter flights, allowing water to be dispatched by planes with higher speed and accuracy, ultimately getting the fires under control faster and more cost efficiently.
“We need to get out of the low-cost, cheapest mentality and we need to be saying we’re the best”
Ranawana is particularly excited about their third project, a herd-counting application. The challenge isn’t deploying AI capable of recognising the animals, but more about the operational feasibility of attaching this tech to a drone where every bit of weight matters.
Other projects include warehouse reconciliation, automated agriculture spraying and logistics deliveries such as a drone delivering in archipelagos like the Maldives or to ships offshore. Ranawana has also taken a look at the struggling tea-industry in Sri Lanka and believes introducing automation to the tea industry can make it more efficient.
Tengri commenced operations in 2016 but a rocky first year forced them to re-start from scratch in 2017 with a new team of engineers and technicians. In two years, they’ve created the products and sold to customers in more than 25 countries. In addition to Ranawana and his co-founder, the company has just nine employees.
Ranawana comes from an academic background. His father and grandfather were both professors, and he studied a DPhil (similar to a PhD) at the University of Oxford on artificial intelligence. He co-founded SimCentric in 2008 with a partner he met while studying. The business created simulation software for militaries around the world. Using their VR and AI products, a soldier could practice a live firing drill without the expense of doing it in the real world. The business grew to over 100 employees with customers in over thirty countries. However, with size came changing responsibilities and Ranawana longed to get back to engineering and AI. Thus the launch of Tengri.
Globally, the drone industry is still in its infancy but ripe for expansion. The technology already exists, but the regulations and accessibility have not caught up. “It takes expertise and knowledge to be able to put a drone system together now, but that will change over the next ten years,” Ranawana says. Similarly, in the last decade, AI went from expert- only, to widely available via the development of accessible tools. Ranawana believes more companies in Sri Lanka need to aim for the global stage as quality players, like SimCentric and Tengri, the two companies he co-founded. “We don’t sell to the world because we’re cheaper, we sell because it’s one of the best products in the world. We compete on an equal scale and charge the same prices.”
He would like to see more of a product design mindset coming into businesses in this country, noting that, “Until it does we’re not going to get these world-class companies coming out of Sri Lanka. We need to get out of the low-cost, cheapest mentality and we need to be saying we’re the best.”
To achieve this will require a mindset change and Ranawana sees an opportunity for Tengri to play a crucial role in educational development. He plans to launch an incubator for entrepreneurs to leverage the technical drone expertise Tengri has developed. “We want entrepreneurs to collaborate with our technology, so they don’t have to think about how to build drone technology, and instead focus on what they want to do with it.”
Ranawana expects Tengri’s business to be at $10 million in revenue by the end of 2020. Despite the inevitable regulatory complexities ahead, he is excitedly optimistic about the future of the industry. “This is a beautiful transition phase for drones – the technology is proven, and we know where it’s going, we’ve just got to start preparing all of the intermediary steps”.