From fish tracking and aviation navigation to health-based applications, Ong Chang Seng shows how innovative GPS technology use can get. Rozana Sani writes
GETTING to Ong Chang Seng’s office in the heart of a busy commercial area in Taman Maluri, Cheras requires skilful traffic navigation, especially during peak hour. Which is rather ironic as the suave gentleman is the sole proprietor of AECO Technologies (AECOT), the first company to market receivers for the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the country in 1989.
AECOT has also been the authorised Garmin distributor — the world’s largest manufacturer of GPS receivers and GPS-related products — for Malaysia since 1991.
The company operates from a three-storey shoplot, with the managing director’s office occupying the top floor. There is no elevator. Ong, 55, lithely leads the way up. He smiles as the photographer and I struggle to catch our breath.
“Going up and down the stairs is the only form of exercise I get these days as my time is very much taken up with business,” he says charmingly. “Which is a pity because I enjoy outdoor sports and activities.”
Navigation is in Ong’s blood but it wasn’t a clear calling from the start. As a child living in a fishing village on Pulau Pangkor, Ong spent many an idyllic day swimming with friends. Once in a while, he would follow his father and older brothers out to sea in their family fishing boat to make a catch.
“In those days, there was no tech gear to help you find your way at sea. Getting to a spot, locating the fish, and coming back were all based on experience, a skill common among fishermen then,” he says.
When not frolicking in the sea, Ong would be at an LP player, which belonged to one of his brothers.
“I was fascinated by it. Eventually, I had the courage to take it apart, but I couldn’t put it back together again. My brother was furious. But being the youngest of four sons and two daughters, my mother was very protective of me.” He says that from a young age, he wanted to an engineer and the incident was an indication of his inclinations.
He took a step at realising his ambition when he went to study software engineering in Toronto, Canada.
“That was my first time out of the country and I was so looking forward to it,” he says with a chuckle. Ong became one of the first Malaysians to come back with a computer degree in 1983. But his skills in programming in C language made it hard to secure a job.
“When I went for job interviews, the towkays asked me what C language was as they had never heard of it before. Having such a skill was too advanced then. I was trained on mini and mainframe computers while in Malaysia, people were still using personal computers.
“I landed my first job at DE Computers that provided building automation solutions — it was also the first Apple distributor at that time. However, around 1985, the company was hard hit and was not getting paid for projects delivered. All the directors left, and I quit.”
Ong was soon offered jobs — at IBM, among others — but he decided to follow his heart and become an entrepreneur.
When Ong established AECOT in 1985, he was looking for an area of business to venture into. He decided on aquaculture, something close to his roots.
“We collaborated with the Fisheries Department to educate fishermen on the benefits of using GPS.
“In 1989, I went to Seattle in the US to look for a suitable tool for them to use. That began my foray into the GPS business. It helped the fishermen become more productive in going about their daily business and the department to keep track of where the fishermen caught their catch and where they sold it. It was quite a struggle trying to get the fishermen to share knowledge and use the technology. But when the haze first hit Malaysia, they understood the benefits. Without GPS, they couldn’t see where they were at sea. And they couldn’t come home.”
Soon Ong and his employees were conducting training for fishermen around the country together with the department.
GPS devices are now a necessary device in most fishing boats. Until today, AECOT is in the business of supplying, installing and servicing of various types of communications and navigational equipment for use on board maritime vessels.
In 1991, AECOT was approached by the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) for some specialised military equipment.
“It knew I was in the GPS business and it needed to equip the infantry on peacekeeping missions, first in Cambodia and then in Somalia, with handheld aviation GPS. Aviation products were produced in the US because they need approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration and Civil Aviation Authority, UK’s specialist aviation regulator.
“We started collaborating with US-based Garmin, which was the start of our relationship.
“The first GPS we supplied to the Royal Military Air Force was fitted in the Nuri to make sure our soldiers did not fly into other countries’ borders when they were on peacekeeping missions. In Somalia, it was instrumental in the rescue of the American soldiers by our infantry,” says Ong.
AECOT continued to expand the range of products from Garmin. Automotive GPS devices were introduced in 2004.
“For the automotive market, you need road maps and the problem prior to 2004 were the maps. People said that you could get road maps from Japan but the maps there were more for surveying, not navigation. They didn’t have turn-by-turn routing — no indication for one way, turn right, turn left etc, only road names. We waited until some local community mappers i.e. Malsing and Malfree, to come up with free maps. Of course, licensed chargeable maps like Tele Atlas and Navteq were available but then, they did not focus on this side of the world.”
Ong says that today, Malfree is one of the best coverage maps in Malaysia while Navteq is getting popular. Garmin GPS for cars and vehicles comes preloaded with three maps — Navteq and the two community maps, Malsing and Malfree.
“If you go to rural areas, Malsing has better coverage. But for future investment, stick to Navteq. Licensed maps guarantee future usage,” advises Ong.
The partnership between AECOT and Garmin has become a close one through the years.
“In the early days, we were the distributor for two other products from two other companies. But unfortunately, the relationship didn’t last long because of different business ideologies. When I met the vice-president and chairman of Garmin in 1991 for the Mindef project in the US, they were only a 10-man team. But they were willing to listen. I told them our environment in Malaysia was different from the US and that they’d need to see for themselves if their products would work here.”
Garmin took note of the request and sent their engineers and VP to Malaysia.
“I drove the VP and his team to Sungai Tekala Forest Park in Ulu Langat. We brought along competitor products from Asian principals like Sony and Panasonic. As we got deeper into the forest, the Garmin product lost the GPS signal before the others. Because we are at the Equator, humidity is at 85 per cent and more. These factors absorb the signals. We have lots of cloud. When the signals pass through the clouds, they get filtered.”
So the Garmin team took back the system, modified it and sent it back to Ong.
“And the new system worked well. That’s where our bond is with Garmin — the customisation.
“Not all products can be used in every country. AECOT makes sure that products have gone through customisation and integrated with our input and research and development.”
The company has a strong distribution network with more than 300 dealers in Malaysia and Indonesia to market the various GPS products under its representation.
AECOT is the major supplier of GPS receivers in the Malaysian market, and its product line includes GPS receivers for the automobile, outdoor recreation, marine, aviation and fitness sectors.
AECOT has also the full support of Garmin in providing factory back-up services for its Garmin products. The company’s technical teams also provide round-the-clock service to its customers’ urgent needs.
To create awareness, AECOT has been involved in a number of projects that showcase the use of GPS systems. The latest is Century Ride Malaysia 2012 in Perak involving hundreds of cyclists and the integration of a Tour Guide feature in its automotive navigation system to support the Malaysian tourism authority and industry.
Beyond marketing and integration, Ong says AECOT — in collaboration with its associate company AE Innovative Technologies — has made notable progress in its research and technology programmes for GPS-related products that emphasise designs for local manufacture and performance.
Its OEM equipment has been fitted in brands like Toyota, Proton and soon, Perodua.
AECOT has also successfully implemented in-house nurtured technology for hardware design, PCB (printed circuit board) design as well as firmware, software and Geographical Information System (GIS) development.
The company’s innovation is being used in a variety of projects. One project is the survey of the effective utilisation of an oil palm plantation.
“Through a combination of GPS and satellite imagery, we can see the effectiveness of the use of a certain fertiliser on crops — how fast a group of plants can grow compared to another and check on the yield. This specialised app helps those in the agriculture industry to plan better.”
Another specialised app from the company is the recently unveiled vehicle anti-theft software called NaviTrack.
The software transforms the GPS in your car into a vehicle tracking device that continuously records and stores the location, speed and direction of its host vehicle. One can track data such as speed and routes, exact start and stop times and positions.
“We are collaborating with Bukit Aman by providing the police with the software that has a link to our control centre in efforts to assist them in reducing vehicle theft in the country. More than 100 patrol cars have been installed with the device and software as well. In any event of theft, our system will relay the information to the police and they will know the location of the stolen car. Information will automatically be updated in the police car and the nearest patrol car to the location can immediately pursue the thieves.”
Also in the pipeline is a location-based service based on Traffic Message Channel technology, which delivers traffic and travel information.
“We plan to use the data from Lembaga Lebuhraya Malaysia and the Integrated Transport Information System, and turn that into meaningful real-time traffic information via the phone. We are in talks with Celcom to make the service available. It is targeted for launch in the second quarter of next year.”
And with all this going on, when does Ong plan to retire?
“I don’t plan to... I plan to go on working especially in developing specialised apps. It gives me great pleasure to have users say a certain system or solution of ours has made a positive impact in their lives or business. Eventually, I will hand over the operations and sales to my children, Ivan and Sue, who are both trained engineers. But I will continue with the research and development as well as handle the corporate clients.”
Often referred to as the GPS Man by his peers, Ong feels that he has been blessed to have been able to open doors and provide job opportunities in the business.
“I started it (the company) and (will) keep it for my family. The money is there if one wants to go public but we can no longer control the company if we take that path. I believe there is so much more to be done with the technology.”