Singapore's new "eye in the sky", the Heron 1 drone which earned its combat-ready status yesterday, hasfull-time national servicemen (NSFs) serving as pilots - a first for the airforce's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), it was revealed.
In a ceremony held at Murai Camp, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen marked the Heron 1's achievement of the Full Operational Capability (FOC) status by the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) 119 and 128 Squadrons. "It's a significant milestone. The FOC of the Heron brings RSAF's (unmanned) aerial capabilities to the level of advanced militaries globally," Dr Ng said in a speech. He called the deployment of NSFs as UAV pilots in the airforce a "significant first". "We have the same exacting standards for NSFs as we do for regular pilots," he added. The NSFs serve as co-pilots, alongside the regulars, who are aircraft captains.
Major John Samuel, the commanding officer of 119 SQN, said the airforce has been looking at tapping on NSFs to fulfil its "manpower needs over the longer term".
The RSAF declined to reveal how many NSF UAV pilots it has, but said it started training them in 2014.
Candidates have to undergo medical and psycho-motor tests and interviews, and it takes about 18 months to be trained as an operationally ready UAV pilot.
NSF Lieutenant Marcus Chia, 20, a UAV pilot, said: "It has been special and meaningful for me. I get to be an aviator (and) operate such a highly advanced platform."
Earlier this month, the Defence Ministry announced that a new cyber-defence vocation for NSFs and operationally ready NSmen had been created with deployment from August.
The Heron 1 provides ground forces with a real-time, bird's-eye view of the battlefield with its advanced imaging sensors. Using its laser designator, the drone can also work with attack helicopters and fighters to guide munitions to targets precisely.
The Heron 1 can also perform counter-terrorism operations, such as tracking suspicious vehicles.
It will replace the Searcher-class UAV, which has been in service since 1994.
The Heron 1 can stay in the air three times longer, for up to 24 hours, fly two times higher at 20,000 feet, and also send sharper video footage in colour.
The drone was inaugurated into the RSAF in 2012. To achieve FOC, the squadrons' personnel have to be trained to operate, maintain and deploy the Heron 1 in operations. Its capabilities were also validated in local and overseas exercises.