Home Team's new unmanned drone can fly longer distance, switch payloads

The unmanned drone took off from Tuas View Fire Station, with the flight lasting 20 minutes over 8km. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - The Home Team has unveiled a new unmanned drone that will allow agencies to fly further into areas to do security sweeps, covering bigger areas based on a pre-programmed flight path.

The drone, which embarked on its maiden long-distance flight on Wednesday (Sept 16), can be operated beyond the sight of the operator, which means it can fly several kilometres away from the person controlling it, instead of being several hundred metres away.

The unmanned drone took off from Tuas View Fire Station, with the flight lasting 20 minutes over 8km.

The machine, developed by the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) and ST Engineering Aerospace, executes long-distance Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

This is as opposed to Extended Visual Line of Sight flights, which require a safety pilot to eyeball the drone and take over control if required, working with a primary drone operator situated within a control room.

With this new technology, the Home Team agencies will be able to further harness and apply this capability in tasks such as patrolling and monitoring larger perimeters.

For one thing, the Home Team can use such drones to patrol and conduct security operations in inaccessible areas, or where situations might be too risky for manual operators to be present.

The drones can also provide real-time situational pictures of incident sites, and bird's-eye views of large-scale or high-security events with large crowds, as videos from the drones can be streamed directly to the Police Operations Command Centre for officers to rapidly view and assess the situation.

The drones can also play a role in detecting hazardous materials and monitoring large fires from above.

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The drone's developers are also working on giving it the capability to deliver essential supplies - including automated external defibrillators (AEDs) during critical missions such as the collapse of a building - which can shorten response times and potentially save lives.

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam viewed a BVLOS UAV flight demonstration at the Tuas View Fire Station on Wednesday afternoon.

"This development is a key milestone in the Home Team's use of cutting-edge technologies to transform the way we operate," he said.

For instance, if there are obstructions to normal routes which fire fighters can move, or if access entry routes are blocked, drones provide a much easier way to observe areas, he added.

This use of technology and more digitised processes would therefore give the Home Team agencies additional situational awareness.

"HTX and the Home Team departments must continue to innovate and find ways to harness technology to enhance the Home Team's effectiveness in keeping Singapore safe and secure," he added.

Such drones also came in handy during the Covid-19 circuit breaker period when the Singapore Police Force used these machines, alongside its area patrols, in BVLOS patrolling operations around the industrial areas in Tuas South.

The flights helped the police to cover long distances and large areas, with a lean team operating remotely.

Assistant Superintendent Benson Tong, capability development officer at the Home Team UAV Team, said: "For EVLOS operations, our UAV pilots are required to be on the ground to maintain constant visual line of sight, whereas with BVLOS, officers can operate the drone remotely from somewhere else, therefore ensuring their safety."

HTX is currently working with various Home Team departments to design and customise the BVLOS UAVs further.

Also in the works is the ability to outfit these drones with an automated payload swop feature, which could see them carrying cameras, HazMat detectors or mechanisms for the delivery of items such as AEDs.

Mr Cheng Wee Kiang, director of HTX's robotics, automation and unmanned systems centre of expertise, said: "The automated payload swop means that the payloads can be adapted to different missions and situations swiftly.

The drone's developers are also working on giving it the capability to deliver essential supplies during critical missions. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

"Since the mundane and time-consuming tasks are taken care of by automation, it will tremendously improve the agility and efficiency of the Home Team's operations."

The drone also operates out of a drone box, which comes with a set of charged batteries that can be rapidly replaced to get the drone ready quickly for its next mission.

The drone box also enables it to fly longer distances over suburban areas, with a vertical take-off and landing hexacopter drone - one with six rotor arms - being able to cover a flight distance of a few kilometres in around 30 minutes.

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