‘Air traffic control tower’ for drones in the making

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'Air traffic control tower' for drones in the making
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Above: A “command centre” set up for a media demonstration of the system. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO The building blocks for an “air traffic control tower” for drones are in place after trials for the system were completed recently, […]


Above: A
Above: A "command centre" set up for a media demonstration of the system. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The building blocks for an "air traffic control tower" for drones are in place after trials for the system were completed recently, a development the Government said would help efforts to find ways to better manage drone traffic safely on a large scale in Singapore.

Drone use on a mass scale could see them delivering parcels, inspect buildings and ships and, possibly, even transport people.

A consortium led by Nova Systems, an Australia-headquartered technical consultancy and professional services firm, announced yesterday that it had successfully completed trials for a system that can manage air traffic for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or aerial drones.

A demonstration of the system's capabilities was conducted earlier in the week and was witnessed by officials and the media at Marina South.

The drone system, called a UAS traffic management system, arose from a call-for-proposals issued by the Ministry of Transport (MOT) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) in 2017 to develop systems that allowed for aerial drones to be used safely in Singapore's densely populated urban environment

The Nova consortium was awarded the project in 2018. Proposals from three other groups were also accepted by MOT and CAAS.

Each project received up to 50 per cent co-funding from the Government, with the amount capped at $1.5 million.

Mr Tan Kah Han, senior director of CAAS' Unmanned Systems Group, told The Straits Times that findings of the drone projects from the call-for-proposals will help "further refine our policies and enhance our regulatory framework".

He said the outcome of Nova's drone system demonstration and the authority's work with other stakeholders "will aid CAAS' efforts to pursue more efficient ways to safely manage drone traffic at scale in Singapore".

"This is important as Singapore's limited and congested airspace requires creative solutions to manage the risk posed by unmanned aircraft operations," said Mr Tan.

The Nova drone system is similar to 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 are at any point in time, even if they cannot visually see the drones, which is an issue now.

  • The year the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore called for proposals to develop systems that allowed for aerial drones to be used safely in Singapore's densely populated urban environment.

    50%

    Maximum government funding Nova and three other groups could have received for the projects.

    Number of flights up to which the Nova system has been tested in simulations.

In future, location data could be made available freely so anyone, for instance, can check where a drone delivering a parcel is.

Besides Nova Systems, another consortium member is OneSky, a US company that provides drone traffic management services. Other partners in the project include local telco M1 and German engineering company Rohde and Schwarz, among others.

No definite timeline was given for future work on the drone system, but Nova Systems and OneSky said that "in the coming years, the two companies will work closely together with the authorities and key industry partners to develop the technologies, regulatory frameworks, operating rules and performance standards to build this system".

The maritime sector is expected to be among the first to use the drone traffic management system. Mr Ryan Lee, managing director for Asia at Nova Systems, said that the maritime environment was less risky from a safety and regulatory standpoint, compared with flying drones in cities over people.

From a business perspective, there are opportunities because Singapore has a bustling maritime business, he added.

Nova's system also helps to ensure that the flight paths of drones do not cross to prevent them from possibly crashing into one another.

The system can check if the machines are keeping to their designated routes and issue alerts if they deviate from their routes due, for instance, to weather effects like rain and strong winds, or even birds attacking the unmanned aircraft.

And if emergencies arise that require drones to be deployed, the system can prioritise flights and help to reschedule or reroute non-emergency flights.

With the new air traffic system, operators and the authorities can also monitor many more drones than it is humanly possible now. It has been tested in simulations for up to 500 flights at a time.

Mr Lee said that the system is needed because, "if left completely to human operators, this would be too intricate and large an undertaking, leaving room for potential human error".

Nova's system communicates with drones in the air through 4G and 5G mobile networks.

One potential speed bump to the commercialisation of the system is regulations.

Nova Systems and OneSky said the implementation of such a system here would require coordination between government agencies to establish a system of policies and regulations that address road safety, air traffic control, network capabilities, cyber security and national security.

Mr Lee said: "Given the scale of the system and the multi-stakeholder collaboration required, it will take some time to roll out the relevant regulations to ensure utmost safety and security."