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The Straits Times says

Space for drones in a high-flying city

New technology has been likened to extensions of the human nervous system when applied to the Internet. It can also be seen as extensions of the human body in the case of smart drones. Once improbable, technology has enabled the hand to reach far and wide to execute tasks, and the eye to watch events and changes in multiple places simultaneously. This is a scenario that's already unfolding here with varying degrees of finesse.

Over 25 potential uses of drones, for example, are being tested by public agencies, including mosquito-breeding checks and construction-site surveys. The benefits are more effective dengue-prevention efforts and fewer work disruptions for the construction industry when drone site inspections are shared by different regulators. It doesn't take a fertile imagination to come up with more ways that drones can make public- and private- sector operations more efficient. They might well become ubiquitous in a "smart city" that is intent on using apt technology to make it hum.

As drones become pervasive - perhaps even intrusive and potentially destructive - there is good reason to clarify laws relating to their use and to legal liabilities. However, this effort should bear in mind the caution from technopreneurs that "over-regulation can lead to under-innovation". Regulations as a whole are said to cost American businesses US$1.8 trillion (S$2.5 trillion) a year (and counting, with 36 new regulations passed every day in the United States), according to US media organisation Newsmax. In contrast, Sweden, which is a hotbed for innovation, understands the weight of red tape on business. Singapore has to strike its own balance as the regulatory framework for drones is reviewed by the Transport Ministry and Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

That exercise will undoubtedly be influenced by the utility of evolving technologies. Public agencies cannot fall too far back technologically for the sake of security and for their own credibility when promoting the adoption of innovative solutions generally. Elsewhere, some employ low-tech means to deal with new problems, like the use of eagles by the Dutch police to trap unauthorised drones in restricted or crowded areas. But the preference here to bank on new technologies will help the city-state to apply these across wide areas. For example, home-grown innovator Singapore Technologies Engineering has developed an unmanned vehicle which can both fly in the air and dive in the water. While this is designed primarily for surveillance work, the technology can surely be used in other spheres too, like creating spectacular visual entertainment at Marina Bay.

Drones can excite and dismay, like Chinese company EHang's drone that can fly a human around via remote control. But in the world of technology, one might let ideas take flight first before deciding what must be brought down to earth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Space for drones in a high-flying city'. Print Edition | Subscribe