Leveraging drones to improve public sector operations

The Water Spider drone (Source: National Research Foundation)

Government agencies in Singapore are exploring the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations. Trials are being conducted for more than 25 potential uses of drones for public sector operations, facilitated by the inter-agency UAS Committee and chaired by the Ministry of Transport. We take a look at the various drones that are currently being tested out by agencies in Singapore.

The Water Spider

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore is responsible for contingency planning and response during maritime emergencies, such as oil spills, chemical spills, vessel mishaps and search and rescue operations. The agency has been studying the deployment of drones from its patrol boats when responding to such marine emergencies.

The drone, named Water Spider, will enhance operational efficiency during such emergency situations. The drone provides aerial surveillance at a higher vantage point for port inspectors, giving a more comprehensive assessment on the extent an of oil spill. When used together with an oil spill trajectory software, a more accurate prediction could be made on the movement of the oil slick.

In search and rescue operations, the drones enables inspectors to make a quick assessment of the area that they are surveying, thus enabling a faster and more targeted response compared to the current deployment of patrol crafts to comb through the waters.

Expected to be operational in the second quarter of 2016, the Water Spider is waterproof, buoyant and has the capability to take off and land on sea surfaces, thereby allowing it to be launched and recovered from patrol crafts.  It is flown tethered to a power source onboard the patrol craft, which gives a much longer endurance of three hours compared to thirty minutes of an untethered drone.

Dengue-control drone

Singapore faces a challenging dengue situation with over 2,600 dengue cases reported in the first month of 2016. Choked roof gutters are conducive breeding grounds for mosquitos and the spread of dengue, but are often difficult to access for inspections.

The National Environment Agency has been conducting trials on the use of drones for the surveillance of roof gutters. The trials have shown that the drones are able to access high places and provide good visuals of problematic areas. For roof gutters that were found to be choked, photographs were taken by the drones and shown to the owners, who are then requested to get contractors to clear the roof gutters and ensure that there is no stagnation of water.

The National Environment Agency also plans to develop a drone that can deposit bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (BTI) larvicide, which kills mosquito larvae, into roof gutters. The trials are expected to conclude in the second quarter of 2016.

Common platform for drone inspections

Several public agencies in Singapore need to carry out regular inspections of construction sites, such as inspections for workplace, safety and health issues, earth control measures and construction progress. Some of these agencies have started to trial the use drones for inspection and monitoring operations. The aerial images and data captured by one agency, however, can be shared and used by other agencies.

To consolidate and synergize their efforts, the UAS Committee is working towards a whole-of-government approach, bringing together public agencies that are exploring the use of drones for construction site inspections. The inter-agency collaboration will leverage on Geospace, a goverment-wide collaborative geospatial platform for agencies to plan drone operations collectively and share data captured by drones.

Individual agencies will be able to use the platform to identify construction sites of interest, indicate their intent to conduct a drone flight inspection, and notify other potential agencies who are interested. Discussions on matters such as proposed area of operations are held online, and existing images of the site and supporting documents such as site plans and flight routes are shared on the platform. The platform can also be used for post-flight analysis through a variety of captured data such as photographs, videos and 3D images.

Leveraging on a common platform, agencies can reduce the need for long email correspondences to arrange an inspection, and multiple agencies can tap on a single drone flight to collect and share the required data, improving the efficiency of inspection operations.

Tender for drone services

To facilitate public agencies' procurement of drone services from commercial vendors, the Ministry of Transport will be calling a tender to invite service providers to bid for a master contract for drone services. This will achieve better economies of scale from the collective demand of public agencies for drone services. 

Mr Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport and Chairman of the UAS Committee, said that an appropriate policy framework is needed to facilitate the use of drones in a regulated manner:

“We need a UAS policy framework that is balanced, practical and sustainable, given the many potential applications and uses of drones, and their increasing availability and affordability. We want to facilitate their use by industry and the public sector, and also hobbyists, but we must at the same time balance against aviation safety, public safety, security and privacy concerns.   So organisations may not be able to do all that they would like with the drones, in an uncontrolled manner, but our risk-based framework will try to facilitate as much as possible,” said Mr Pang.