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Ateneo researcher uses drones for land titling

What began as a thesis at Ateneo de Manila University six years ago is now changing the method of land survey, mapping and titling in the Philippines.

“It was a thesis on climate change.  We were doing climate change research in San Pablo, Laguna and Tacloban, before it was hit by typhoon Yolanda.  We were studying coastal erosion and climate change,” SkyEye Inc. co-founder and chief executive Matthew Cua says in a news briefing at Impact Hub Manila in Makati City.

Cua and other researchers mostly from Ateneo developed an unmanned aerial vehicle or drone, using duct tape, styrofoam and old computer parts, to gather weather data and produce maps in 2010.

SkyEye Inc. co-founder and chief executive Matthew Cua
He graduated from Ateneo de Manila University with Bachelor of Science in Management with Applied Chemistry in 2010.  While taking his Master’s in Environmental Science, Disaster Risk Reduction, Air Quality and Sustainable Business Operations, he focused his research on the use of drones in vertical profiling of the lower troposphere and the rebuilding of ecosystems for a holistic and sustainable relationship between human civilization and the environment. 

“From then, the thesis morphed into something else,” says Cua, who now leads a startup that uses the drone technology to provide services such as comprehensive and cost-efficient land surveying, lot titling, infrastructure planning and construction and humanitarian response. 

SkyEye, the startup Cua heads, is now composed of 14 team members, who are mostly scientists and engineers. On March 29, SkyEye was chosen as the winning team of the Impact Hub Fellowship on Innovation in Mobility with LBC Express and was awarded a grand prize of P750,000, including a seed fund of P320,000 and a nine-month incubation support, with access to a collaborative workspace, valuable local and global network, focused mentoring and continued skill development.

Impact Hub Manila, located at the fifth floor of Green Sun building along Chino Roces Ave. Extension, is a co-working and events space for a membership community of entrepreneurs, activists, creatives and professionals taking action to drive positive social and environmental change. It was brought to the Philippines by co-founders LizAn Kuster, Matt Jaeggi and Ces Rondario.

SkyEye was among three teams that pitched their businesses to a panel of industry experts and investors led by LBC chief strategy and innovation officer Fernando Araneta. The other teams are Food Planner Inc., which offers post-harvest food processing, taking food direct from the farm to the market and Wave, which developed a ride-sharing, booking and social platform to provide an affordable alternative for daily commuters.

Araneta says SkyEye was chosen because of its innovative approach, combining hardware, software, and highly talented people to create services to benefit the customers and the country. “We believe their pioneering use of drone technology has a huge potential to bring positive change to the Philippines and abroad. Through further development, we anticipate a diverse range of solutions and applications in the subject of mobility,” he says.

Cua is a researcher and a member of the academe at Ateneo Innovation Center.  “I am an environmental scientist by trade, although my co-founders are engineers.  We did studies first on climate change and then we had the epic disasters such as Bohol earthquake, typhoon Yolanda and typhoon Glenda.  After that, we went to mapping,” he says.

His team went around the country to test the technology, and not even an incident involving communist rebels in Mindanao, discouraged them from exploiting the potential of UAV or drone.

“We were asked nicely not to leave by NPA [New People’s Army],” he says.

Cua, three other SkyEye surveyors and a driver were reported missing in Barangay New Leyte, Maco, Compostela Valley on May 30, 2014 while conducting drone surveillance in the area.  They were hired by the Environment Department to survey the progress of the national greening program in Mindanao.

The rebels confiscated their surveillance gadgets, including three drones, two laptops and one GPS machine.  They were allowed to leave the area days later.

Despite the incident, Cua and his team continued to use their technology in a bid to provide Filipino landowners a better and faster way of having their lots surveyed and titled.

“We found out that through our journey that land in the Philippines is not properly protected, meaning there are no property rights.  Drones can be the ones to provide that service to Filipinos because it is faster and cheaper,” he says.

As an innovator, Cua believes that creating sustainable technologies and business models is the key to progress. He saw an economic opportunity to tap the full potential of drones.  “We stumbled on these opportunities.  We are not business people who have MBAs.  We are scientists and engineers who want to solve problems.  When there is a new problem, we solve it. And we found there is a market for it. 

“Right now, we are a team of 14, of whom 13 are technical,” he says.

Cua says SkyEye can conduct land survey at a quarter of the cost of traditional surveys, “not because we are cheaper, but because we can do it much faster.”

“Usually, our service costs around 20 percent to 25 percent of the prices of the traditional survey because we can do it faster,” he says.

“Traditionally, you have somebody with a pole walking around.  Imagine that instead of a man walking with the pole, the drone is flying with the pole.  It is more automated.  It is faster, because there would be no snake bites or tree cutting involved.  Because it is faster, it is cheaper,” he says.

He says SkyEye has a trade secret on how to operate the drones even at low heights. “We are a service-oriented company.  We do not sell the drones,” he says.

The government certifies SkyEye data as it follows the technical protocols, he says.

Cua says the Impact Hub-LBC mentorship will help SkyEye enhance its business model.  “The idea that we have is weird, to say the least.  It is not a traditional service, or startup. So we need mentors to help us figure this out.  There are many nuances, many documents required. That’s what we are figuring out,” he says.

Cua says while the major developers such as Filinvest Land, Ayala Land, SM Development Corp. and Robinsons Land already tap the services of SkyEye, their ultimate goal is to help all Filipino landowners.

The long-term plan, he says, is to professionalize the company, adding more senior management people who can help in sales, marketing, finance and operations.  “The market that we want to target are normal Filipinos who have land, and yet cannot afford to hire a surveyor to protect their land. That is our retail market.  Right now, there are real estate developers who pay big money for this service, but overall, our target is the ordinary Filipinos,” says Cua. 

Topics: SkyEye Inc , Impact Hub-LBC , land titling
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