Unmanned drone deliveries in Singapore on track to reality

18 Apr 2022

Straits Times, 18 Apr 2022, Unmanned drone deliveries in Singapore on track to reality
The launch of 5G networks, longer-lasting batteries and better sensors are among developments in the past two years that have brought the concept of unmanned drone doorstep delivery of parcels closer to reality here.

These have led to successful deliveries of items by autonomous drones in Singapore, said industry experts and observers.

Singapore University of Technology and Design Associate Professor Foong Shaohui said longer-lasting batteries in combination with more power-efficient onboard electronics have resulted in flight endurance gains.

For example, the DJI Mavic 3 launched last year has 46 minutes of flight time, whereas the older DJI Mavic Pro of about the same weight and size had just 27 minutes of flight time.

Longer-lasting batteries also allow a drone to be equipped with powerful motors to lift heavier packages, as a flight with a parcel consumes more power than one without a payload, said Mr Scottz Lip, a lecturer and senior manager for unmanned aerial vehicles at Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Robotics Research and Innovation Centre.

Mr Lip, who is also assistant director of the polytechnic's School of Life Sciences and Chemical Technology, said drones are now equipped with better sensors and more powerful computer processors, which help them to better detect obstacles and find a safe flight route.

A 5G network's coverage and low latency - the time lag between sending and receiving data - enable a drone to be monitored and quickly controlled at any distance from its operator, he said.

"There is always a human operator in a command centre or ground station who can intervene ahead of time to guide the drone to a safe location before its systems fail," he added.

Deliveries by drones have made the news recently, including a pilot for food deliveries to St John's Island from March 22 to April 9.

There are also ongoing trials by companies such as Skyports and ST Engineering to deliver small items such as cash to ships off Marina Bay.

But there are future challenges.

Skyports head of Asia-Pacific Tay Yun Yuan said logistics hubs with facilities such as battery charging points and maintenance workshops will be needed as demand for drone delivery grows.

"Beyond physical infrastructure, another significant challenge is the creation of regulatory frameworks to support the implementation and growth of the industry," he added.

Delivery in mainland Singapore's urban environment also faces various challenges.

Drones have limited space to fly as there are areas that they are generally prohibited from entering, such as within 5km of an airport or military airbase.

Noting the large volume of manned flights near Singapore's airports, Prof Foong said: "There needs to be a way to safely deconflict the traffic of drone deliveries from the needs of manned flight and recreational or industrial drone operators."

There are also safety and privacy concerns if drones are to fly over roads, train tracks and people.

ST Engineering vice-president and head of unmanned air systems Teong Soo Soon said operators and end users will need to decide if using drones over other delivery modes is justified for its potentially higher cost.

For its drone operations, the company has to work with government agencies and the public to minimise disruptions and risk that such operations may cause, he said.

"For example, flying drones over nature reserves may disturb the well-being of birds in their habitats," he added.

In operation in some countries
While it may be years before Singaporeans have food and other items delivered to their doorstep via drones, such services already exist elsewhere.

Here are what some drone delivery operators are doing in other parts of the world:

The subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet operates drone delivery services in parts of three countries: Finland's Helsinki; Australia's Canberra and Logan, as well as areas of Texas and Virginia in the United States. Its drones make deliveries to customers from local eateries and retailers such as pharmacies.

The Israel-based firm partnered with Icelandic e-commerce retailer Aha in 2017 to launch a drone delivery service in Reykjavik, Iceland.

It has since expanded its operations to parts of North Carolina in the US, where its drones deliver food and other products sold by businesses in the area.

The company operates drone delivery of goods such as food and groceries in various parts of Ireland, including the suburb of Balbriggan in Dublin.

The American delivery firm transports medical products, such as Covid-19 vaccines, by drone to communities in Rwanda, Ghana and the US. It reportedly has plans to expand its services to other countries such as Japan and the Philippines.

The tech giant is still developing its drone delivery programme, Amazon Prime Air. It had announced in 2019 that operations would start "within months" but did not specify an exact location.