The decision to designate one-north in Buona Vista as Singapore's first drone estate reveals the need to keep the country at the forefront of changes transforming the aviation skyline. One-north is a 2 sq km development which combines educational institutes, residences, recreational amenities and research facilities to produce a "work-live-play-learn" environment. Its rationale is ideal for turning it into a testbed for ideas to see how drone technology can feed into Singapore's industrial and commercial plans. Parcel deliveries, security checks, and the inspection of buildings are among the tasks for which drones could be used to advantage, particularly in a labour-scarce economy.
The use of drones is becoming a more visible part of the economic landscape elsewhere and is entrenching itself in routine business operations. By 2019, the commercial drone market is expected to generate about US$1.6 billion (S$2.1 billion) in global revenue. In one analysis, the market for commercial and civilian drones is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19 per cent between 2015 and 2020. In the case of the United States, the impact of commercial drones could amount to US$82 billion and create 100,000 jobs by 2025, according to another study. Europe, too, has embarked on an integrated vision of integrating unmanned aircraft into the region's airspace.
Asia is hardly left behind as global trends converge. A journal, Techonomy, lately identified New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Germany, and the United Kingdom as countries to watch "as they build their own low-altitude airspace infrastructures and open more of their skyways to drones". Singapore faces particular challenges in employing unmanned aircraft systems. Its airspace is limited severely, compared to the other countries on that select list. Correspondingly, its tolerance of risk has to be low. Nevertheless, drones do offer tangible benefits which Singapore must learn to tap. To do so would require the Government to facilitate their use by both the private and public sectors. The drone estate at one-north is a concrete example of how synergies between the sectors could be created by proactive official policies.
There is yet another dimension, however. The Internet of Things Institute listed several threats posed by drones. They have injured people, crashed into military aircraft, interfered with firefighting efforts, and been used as a smuggling tool. These are major abuses of the new aerial medium, to say nothing of the possibility of terrorists weaponising the devices. It has been reported that fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria modified off-the-shelf aircraft to drop grenades. The authorities will need to reinforce technological and other buffers between the peaceful and malevolent uses of drones as one-north takes off.