A self-operating system that allows a drone to take off, land and recharge its batteries on its own is being tested at an industrial estate in the western part of the island by the Singapore Police Force.
This system allows an operator to configure details like a drone's flight path and monitor it remotely in an off-site command centre so no pilot has to be on-site as is usual with such devices.
Having drones monitor the industrial estate reduces the need for patrols by police officers in the area.
Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Elvis Chong said industrial estates are relatively deserted during the circuit breaker period, and susceptible to crimes such as housebreaking and theft.
"We don't want criminals to take the opportunity to break into these warehouses or office areas, because one crime is also too much for anyone to swallow, especially during this difficult period," said DSP Chong, who is commanding officer of Clementi Neighbourhood Police Centre.
The police plan to deploy this self-operating drone system in residential estates later in the trial, which began at the end of last month.
Police have used conventional drones to complement ground operations for some time, for instance to help with crowd control and surveillance during the 2020 countdown festivities at Marina Bay.
But having a self-operating drone system that does not require an on-site operator would mean autonomous drones can be deployed safely in hazardous and remote sites, for search and rescue, and to deliver supplies and equipment.
For example, the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) is exploring using this self-operating system to deliver automated external defibrillators within a shorter time.
The ongoing trial would allow HTX to collect important technical data by flying drones in an urban built-up environment and develop the confidence of operating in such terrain. It will end once enough data has been collected.
Senior engineer Low Hsien Meng from the HTX Robotics, Automation and Unmanned Systems Centre of Expertise, which is in charge of the project, said the drones will be flying through urban areas in most cases, so the collected data would help make the system more reliable and safer for police officers as well as the public at large.
The self-operating system comprises a drone housed in a 2.2m-tall box that can be moved to wherever it needs to be deployed.
The box's robotic automation system ensures that the 10 batteries are fully charged and ready to be installed, and also equips the drone with tools like cameras before it is launched. Two such drone boxes are on trial. Each drone is about 1.79m wide and weighs about 10kg.
The drones can fly within a radius of a few hundred metres, with cameras that have high-zoom capability.
Flights can last for at least 30 minutes, depending on how much equipment the drone is carrying and weather conditions such as heavy winds or rain.
Mr Low explained: "Unlike a conventional drone where you need a pilot on-site to insert the battery and prepare the aircraft, with a drone box concept, all these preparatory activities are actually automated by the system inside the drone box."
The drone operator can then focus on the mission at hand, such as observing videos that are streamed in real time to the command centre and tablet devices.
DSP Sum Teck Meng, who is in charge of the Home Team Unmanned Aerial Vehicles unit, said the quality of the footage is important so officers can get a clear understanding of the situation on the ground.
For the ongoing trial, a temporary command centre has been set up on-site, with an officer positioned there to observe the flight of the drone.
The trial is a precursor to operating flights from the boxes, where the drones can be flown even when they are completely beyond an operator's line of sight, so no officers have to be physically present at the location.