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Singapore completes trials on drone flight management system

Image courtesy: www.tech.gov.sg

A consortium led by an Australia-headquartered technical consultancy and professional services firm announced that it had completed trials for a system that can manage air traffic for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or aerial drones. A development the Singapore Government said would help efforts to find ways to better manage drone traffic safely on a large scale. The drone system, called the UAS traffic management system, arose from a call-for-proposals issued by the Ministry of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).

Drone use on a mass scale could see them delivering parcels, inspecting buildings and ships, and possibly, even transporting people. This capability of the system is in anticipation of busier airspace in the future with more frequent drone flights and drones deploying goods.

Flights with the system have been tested in industrial, financial, and residential areas, including at Marina Bay Financial Centre, in Kallang, Orchard Boulevard and coastal areas near Kallang Riverside and Sentosa.

The drone system is like a traditional flight management system for manned aircraft which helps to assign and monitor flight routes in real-time. Such an air traffic control tower for drones helps operators, other parties and regulators keep track of where the unmanned aircraft is at any point in time, even if they cannot visually see the drones. In future, location data could be made available freely so anyone, for instance, can check where a drone delivering a parcel is. Operators and the authorities can also monitor many more drones than is humanly possible now with the new air traffic system. It has been tested in simulations for up to 500 flights at a time.

The drone system communicates with drones in the air through 4G and 5G mobile networks, with telco SIM cards inserted into them. If mobile communications fail at any time, the system can switch over to satellite communications, which is not otherwise used, as it is more costly, among other things.

The system can also check if the machines are keeping to their designated routes, and issue alerts if they deviate from their routes due to, for instance, weather effects like rain and strong winds, or even birds attacking the unmanned aircraft. If the system detects that a drone is in trouble or behaving abnormally, such as not following its flight path after a set amount of time, the system can alert other drones in the air to avoid the immediate area. The system could also alert the authorities who might then take down the rogue drone.

Developers say that the maritime sector is expected to be among the first to use the drone traffic management system. They added that from a safety and regulatory standpoint, the maritime environment poses less risk for testing drone operations like deliveries. From a business perspective, the maritime sector makes sense, as Singapore has one of the largest ports in the world, with many vessels transferring cargo and people. And, with the Covid-19 pandemic, drone deliveries to ships from land could also be done, instead of having people on boats do them – this reduces potential human exposure to the virus.

The project received up to 50% co-funding from the Government, with the amount capped at S$1.5 million. The developers also partnered with a United States company that provides drone traffic management services, a local telco, and a German engineering firm, among others.

While no definite timeline has been given for future work on the drone system, the developers said that in the coming years, their companies will work closely together with the Government and key industry partners to develop the technologies, regulatory frameworks, operating rules, and performance standards to build this system.

The developers also said that in Singapore, the implementation of such a system would require coordination between government agencies to establish a system of policies and regulations that address road safety, air traffic control, network capabilities, cybersecurity, and national security. The agencies would likely include the Land Transport Authority, CAAS, Infocomm Media Development Authority, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

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