Military tech

Drones could feature in 'smart' airbases of the future

Equipped with electro-optical, infrared and lidar sensors, drones are being tested by the air force to check for runway damage - a task that is currently done manually.
Equipped with electro-optical, infrared and lidar sensors, drones are being tested by the air force to check for runway damage - a task that is currently done manually. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

In the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) vision of "smart" airbases of the future, drones might take over the checking of runways for damage or be deployed to capture errant drones using a net.

Aircraft turnaround time and aircraft engineer workload could be reduced with an automated aircraft inspection system. Maintenance tasks could be more proactive when data analytics is applied to aircraft information, such that works could be carried out before more complex problems surface.

Military Expert 5 Tommy Ong, 35, head of airbase operability systems at the Air Plans Department, said: "The airbase is an intricate and tightly connected war-fighting system. The RSAF is developing 'smart' airbases to generate and sustain air power for the RSAF more effectively.

"Leveraging technologies such as data analytics and artificial intelligence will also revolutionise the way we fight, and enable us to be more effective, agile and resilient in air power generation operations."

Since January, the air force has been testing out drones to carry out damage assessment for runways, such as detecting potholes or craters. Equipped with electro-optical, infrared and lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors, these drones can be used during both the day and night.

Currently, checking for runway damage is done manually through visual inspections.

The system will prioritise runway repair operations and recommend taxi routes to minimise disruption to aircraft launch and recovery operations. Current algorithms can help it to detect objects as small as a canned drink.

This and other initiatives will be gradually rolled out when they are ready, as trials are still ongoing for these systems.

On realising the "smart" airbase vision, ME5 Ong said that algorithm development remains one of the main challenges.

"We understand that it's not possible to have a 100 per cent working algorithm at the outset, so we want to in-build some kind of learning mechanism in this algorithm, to aid in its development. So over time, it'll be more robust."

Lim Min Zhang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2018, with the headline 'Drones could feature in 'smart' airbases of the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe