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Drones: Boon or bane?

07 Jul 2019

Straits Times, 7 Jul 2019, Drones: Boon or bane?

Drone sightings are not common at Changi Airport, so when one showed up unannounced on the night of June 18, there were serious concerns.
 
First spotted from the ground, it was flying over Changi Beach. The control tower was immediately alerted.
 
The next few hours were tense.
 
As ground officers tracked the drone, air traffic controllers acted quickly to move flights out of the way; the task exacerbated by limited airspace and uncertainty about the drone's movements.
 
Instead of taking the usual half-hour breaks after every 60 to 90 minutes, they returned sooner.
 
In the air, anxious passengers were glued to their seats as their flights circled, waiting for approval to land.
 
On the ground, departures were held back at Changi and, where possible, at other airports for Singapore-bound flights.
 
By the time the mayhem ended at 9am the next morning, 37 flights had been delayed and one diverted. During the 10 hours that preceded, one of Changi's two runways was suspended for a short period of time.
 
Less than a week later, another drone was sighted.
 
On June 24, a combination of unauthorised drone activities and bad weather led to delays of 15 departures and three arrivals. Another seven flights were diverted.
 
The culprit - or culprits - have reportedly not been caught yet.
 
WEAPONS OF MASS DISRUPTION?
Changi is not the first, nor will it be the last, airport to be disrupted by drones.
 
In one of the worst reported cases, about 1,000 flights were delayed or cancelled and 140,000 passengers affected when drones disrupted operations at Gatwick Airport near London over three days last December.
 
Three weeks later, on Jan 8, London's Heathrow Airport suspended all departing flights for over an hour after reports of a drone sighted in the area.
 
Experts told The Sunday Times they expect the number of such airport incursions - intentional or otherwise - to increase because the unmanned aircraft industry is still nascent.
 
In 2015, the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) formed the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advisory Group (UAS-AG) to develop guidance material and expedite the development of provisions to help member states regulate unmanned aircraft systems.
 
At the end of the Unmanned Aviation Week series of events held in Montreal, Canada and Chengdu, China last September, ICAO secretary-general Fang Liu noted that industry estimates showed that Chinese manufacturer DJI, which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the non-military small UAS market, has seen revenues jump - from just over US$4 million (S$5.4 million) to a billion dollars between 2011 and 2015.
 
The European market is expected to be worth over €10 billion (S$15.3 billion) annually in 2035, and over €15 billion by 2050.
 
While acknowledging the new opportunities that UAS would offer, Dr Fang warned about safety and other risks to legacy aircraft and operations. These include potential collision with manned aircraft and the use of unapproved communications spectrum.
 
She also spoke of the need to focus efforts on concerns surrounding UAS operations over the high seas. These could be related to activities for oil platforms, ship inspections, fisheries resource monitoring and compliance, atmospheric research and weather measurement, search and rescue, and security operations.
 
DRONES NOT GOING TO FLY AWAY
Associate Professor Foong Shaohui at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who deals with unmanned aerial vehicles as part of his engineering focus, said there great potential for a strong UAS industry in Singapore.
 
"UAS is more than just aerial filming and recreational flying. There is much more that is currently being done here that is very important but perhaps less visible," he said.
 
For example, drones are used by many government agencies for inspection of buildings, trees, sewerage tunnels, bridges and MRT viaducts.
 
Such tasks can be difficult, even dangerous for humans, but perfect for aerial robots to perform, Prof Foong said.
 
He added: "The Environment Ministry has been using drones to tackle mosquito breeding and the Home Team also has specialised drones to support ground operations."
 
The Transport Ministry also has big plans for drones.
 
In March, Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min said a "maritime drone estate" to test unmanned aircraft for use at sea will be set up near Marina South Pier.
 
It will be run by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), and act as a "regulatory sandbox" to help the authorities draw up standards for maritime drone operations.
 
Dr Lam noted that companies such as maritime firm Wilhelmsen and aircraft maker Airbus are already testing the use of drones to deliver goods from shore to ship, to increase productivity and reduce the need for manpower.
 
Prof Foong said: "It's hard for Singapore to do without UAS. We would be left behind as a smart nation if we limit the growth and application of the technology."
 
THE NEED FOR REGULATION
Mr Timothy de Souza, who heads a 12-member panel set up by the Transport Ministry to look into unmanned aircraft operations, told The Sunday Times that the panel is likely to propose mandatory registration for drones above a certain weight and stiffer penalties for those who flout flying rules.
 
There is currently a ban in Singapore on flying drones within 5km of airports or military airbases, or at altitudes above 61m, without a permit. Those who flout the rules may be fined up to $20,000 and jailed for up to a year.
 
In the first case of its kind, two men were charged in court on Friday with allegedly flying drones for recreation within 5km of the Paya Lebar Airbase without a permit. Even as the panel, which will make its final recommendations before the end of the year, continues its work, the CAAS is beefing up its anti-drone capabilities.
 
Singapore is not alone in step-ping up efforts to tackle the challenges posed by unmanned aerial vehicles.
 
In the United States, Ireland, China and United Arab Emirates, there are rules that require drones - in many cases, above a stipulated weight - to be registered, for a fee. Britain and Australia are also planning to introduce similar rules.
 
More critical, though, is for the authorities to put in place an air traffic management system for UAS.
 
Prof Foong said: "Singapore already has significant airspace dedicated to commercial and military aviation, and there is a critical need to ensure that these spaces are not disrupted by UAS operations.
 
"Even within zones where UAS activities are allowed, with greater usage of drones, there needs to be a way to manage all the traffic in the air at any one point of time."
 
This should be similar to how commercial air travel is currently regulated by a network of air traffic controllers.
 
Prof Foong said: "While UAS technology has been maturing, the infrastructure to support UAS operations has not proceeded with the same vigour. This is where efforts need to be stepped up."