Coronavirus: NParks enlists drones to monitor crowds at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

ST VIDEO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - On Thursday morning (April 9) at about 9.45am, a drone rose slowly from the summit of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in the heart of Singapore.

The drone hovered just about 50m overhead, offering a bird's-eye view of the crowd gathered at the clearing at the top of the hill, before descending back onto the ground, where it was picked up by officers from the National Parks Board (NParks).

It is Day Three of Singapore’s circuit breaker mode, and with schools and most workplaces shut, some people have turned to Singapore’s nature areas for exercise and recreation. 

Dr Leong Chee Chiew, NParks’ commissioner of parks and recreation, said NParks is tapping technology to help monitor visitorship at certain parks and nature areas in Singapore.

“A total of 30 drones will be deployed in selected parks and nature areas that are larger with more ground to cover, such as Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, East Coast Park and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” he told The Straits Times. 

On April 4, NParks launched its Safe Distance @ Parks portal  to allow members of the public to check visitorship levels at Singapore’s major parks, gardens and nature areas, so that they can choose a less crowded green space near them to exercise safely. 

Dr Leong said NParks updates the portal by collecting real-time data from staff on the ground and from visitor count systems. 

He added: “The use of drones provides us with a high vantage point to obtain visitorship updates quickly, complementing ground observations.”

Aerial photographs taken by the drone are reviewed every half an hour, and areas experiencing high visitorship levels will be temporarily closed in order to ensure safe distancing, Dr Leong said. 


An aerial photograph taken by a drone at the summit of Bukit Timah Hill at 9.45am on April 9, 2020. PHOTO: NPARKS

At 10am on Thursday, the map showed that there were “moderate” crowds at the summit of Bukit Timah Hill. 

While the number of people at the reserve did not seem unusual for a regular weekday morning, there were other indicators showing that times have changed.

A pavilion at the summit of Bukit Timah Hill where recreational hikers and joggers usually gather to rest after the hike up was fenced off with a bright orange net.

A sign read: "In view of the Covid-19 situation and the latest advisories from the Ministry of Health, group activities and/or gatherings are not permitted.

"Visitors are advised to comply with safe distancing measures by ensuring separation of at least a metre apart."

There were also visitors who came looking for a respite amid the current situation. 

Human resources manager Yap Lay Eng, 42, for example, had decided to visit the reserve with her two daughters Abby, 20, and Ivy, 21, for some exercise.

"We don't get much exercise while working from home; always eating and sitting. So must come out and sweat," she said.


The drone offers a bird's-eye view of the crowd size at the clearing at the top of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Designer Kim Mi Kyoung, 35, is a regular at the reserve who needed a mental health break from being cooped up at home alone.

But she takes precautions by keeping a mask handy and ensuring that she does not go too near to people, she said.

 
 
 

Most of the visitors ST saw on Thursday morning were individuals who kept their distance from one another or obvious family groups, such as parents with children.

Multiple signs urging people to keep a 1m distance from those around them were seen throughout the trail leading up to the summit. NParks officers were also seen making rounds to remind people not to gather and to keep a safe distance.

Retiree Simon Lee, 64, who regularly visits Bukit Timah Nature Reserve for exercise, welcomed the measures.

"It's good to contain the spread, if not the situation will just get worse," he said.

"Most people seem to be taking precautions, (and) keeping their distance."

NParks’ Dr Leong said that in line with advisories from the Health Ministry, members of the public should stay home to minimise the spread of the virus. 

Visits to the parks should be made alone or with immediate family members, he added, and people should be reminded to practise safe distancing measures. People should also return to their homes once done.

Gathering in groups in parks is not permitted, said Dr Leong, and about 1,000 NParks staff are being rostered to enforce safe distancing in these parks. 

“We are enforcing safe distancing measures at all parks, gardens and nature reserves managed by NParks including the park connector network, Pulau Ubin, as well as parks managed by town councils,” said Dr Leong.

“We are encouraged that visitors have been cooperative and understanding when advised on the need for these measures.”