Myanmar's inventors playing catch-up

Mr Thae Maung Maung, head of the department for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, with one of his self-made unmanned aerial vehicles at the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University in Meiktila, in the Mandalay region in central Myanmar.
Mr Thae Maung Maung, head of the department for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, with one of his self-made unmanned aerial vehicles at the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University in Meiktila, in the Mandalay region in central Myanmar.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

After years of isolation under junta rule, they are turning to the Net to learn from the world

YANGON • In a ramshackle workshop behind a bustling Yangon market, Mr Kyi Tha fixes the plastic propeller of a home-made drone, one of a growing number of enthusiasts refusing to let poverty clip the wings of their high-tech dreams.

A new generation of creative young inventors have turned to the Internet to catch up with the rest of the world, after years of isolation under junta rule left the country with little access to engineering expertise or cutting-edge technology.

"Studying drone technology is not easy in Myanmar. So we watched video clips about it on YouTube," said Mr Kyi Tha, admitting he watched clips for months, patiently enduring notoriously slow Web connections in his search for knowledge. "After experimenting for one year, we could do many things," he said.

Mr Kyi Tha, 26, and his cousin, Mr Thet San, 30, have transformed a modest wooden home into the nerve centre of their engineering and technology business, Myanmar Future Science. A workbench in the backyard is cluttered with the signs of feverish invention - boxes of screws, aluminium rods, and the body of a model aeroplane.

SERIOUS HOBBY

This is our hobby. We are crazy about making things with these accessories, just as many young students in Myanmar would like to do.

MR KYI THA

Their firm makes its money providing engineering services to the government and private firms, using drones and model aircraft to conduct aerial surveys for maps and assessments of agricultural areas.

But their passion is opening up the world of technology to fellow budding inventors. They have a little shop in their garden packed with tiny motors, propellers and plastic body-parts for drones, planes and radio-controlled cars.

Myanmar's youth are eager to keep up with the latest technological developments, but are often held back by poverty.

A new ready-made drone could set one back up to 300,000 kyats (S$325), far beyond the financial reach of most young people in Myanmar, where the World Bank puts average annual income per capita at US$1,270.

But enterprising gadget builders rely on creativity to keep their costs down to just US$10 - using materials like polystyrene foam packaging to build their models and seeking out cheap engine parts.

"This is our hobby. We are crazy about making things with these accessories, just as many young students in Myanmar would like to do," said Mr Kyi Tha, who imports most of the parts from China.

At the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University in the central town of Meiktila, researchers are utilising drone technology for a more scientific purpose. The university has operated recent drone surveys to assess the impact of devastating monsoon floods that inundated huge areas of the country from July to September, affecting some 1.6 million people at their peak.

"Drone pictures can be very useful for preventing and measuring damage," said Mr Thae Maung Maung, head of the department for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. He said the surveys aimed to find out the scale of losses from the disaster, map the points where rivers had burst their banks and plot the best place for relief camps.

The new department is striving to keep up with technological advancements overseas - no mean feat in an education system that has been underfunded and neglected for years.

Mr Thae Maung Maung suggests enthusiasts such as Mr Kyi Tha will be crucial in helping Myanmar catch up with the rest of the world.

He explains: "We need to encourage young people's interest in technology so we can keep developing."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'Myanmar's inventors playing catch-up'. Print Edition | Subscribe