Singapore designates area for drone tests, explores new tech for air traffic management

Government designates One-North district as the country's first drone estate, in which tests can be carried out, and inks several partnerships to tap technologies such as AI to enhance air traffic management.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

The Singapore government has set aside a designated area on the island in which drones can be tested and signed several partnerships to explore the use of new technologies to improve air traffic management.

The One-North district, which served as an R&D hub, was unveiled as the country's first drone estate to provide an area where organisations and research institutions could test unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technologies.

The government on Tuesday acknowledged significant potential for such systems to facilitate new applications and improve operational efficiencies, said Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, at the 6th Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit.

"However, there are also concerns about safety and security issues related to the use of UAS, in particular, how UAS will affect manned flights and disrupt air traffic management," Khaw noted. "These concerns must be addressed before the full potential of UAS can be realised. Singapore has a limited airspace and, hence, our risk tolerance is low when it comes to UAS operations."

Designating an area for drone development would facilitate the growth of high-tech companies with UAS capabilities as well as "spur meaningful commercial partnerships", he said, adding that Airbus, ST Aerospace, and Nanyang Technological University's Air Traffic Management Research Institute already had signed on as pioneer users of the new drone estate.

Specifically, ST Aerospace signed an agreement with Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to develop new concepts, processes, and technologies aimed at enabling Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) UAS operations here, including within or near an aerodrome.

ST Aerospace would offer technical services to facilitate systems integration and prototypes to be built as well as work with CAAS to establish a safety regulatory framework for such operations in Singapore.

The two companies said they had identified four key areas to kickstart the collaboration, including maritime, aviation, construction, and security and public safety. They would explore the use of BVLOS UAS, for example, for port crane and defect inspection as well as infrastructure inspection of high-rise building facade.

Artificial intelligence to drive better air traffic management

CAAS also inked an agreement with Mitre Asia-Pacific Singapore to explore the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to improve air traffic management operations. Such processes typically encompassed complex and cognitive-intensive tasks that required air traffic control officers to monitor and process information from various sources, predict air traffic flow, make decisions swiftly, and provide air traffic instructions.

The partnership would focus on AI-powered air traffic management, including the development of machine-learning techniques and speech-recognition capabilities, which then could be applied to air traffic systems to improve the performance of traffic control officers.

CAAS also signed another agreement with Thales to develop next-generation air traffic management technologies. These would comprise analyses of digital trends impacting the aviation industry, application of AI in air traffic management, and the development of an air traffic management system architecture that could be easily integrated with new technologies.

The partnership also would explore the use of airspace for both manned aircrafts and drones.

CAAS Director-General Kevin Shum said: "Technology is driving fundamental changes to air traffic management. We need to be ready for these changes. We are exploring different ways to integrate more advanced technologies and capabilities into our fifth generation air traffic control system."

CAAS also signed agreements with Singapore Technologies Electronics and GomSpace to jointly conduct research on the implementation of space-based Very High Frequency (VHF) communications for air traffic management in the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR). This involved the mounting of VHF communications equipment onto a constellation of small low-earth-orbit satellites to enable real-time communications between air traffic controllers and pilots over oceanic airspace.

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