Surveillance drones operating autonomously take to the sky in police trial

SPH Brightcove Video
A new autonomous drone system is being tested in an industrial estate in the western part of Singapore. It is used to conduct surveillance and prevent crimes such as housebreaking and theft.
DSP Sum Tuck Meng with the drone and drone box. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - A self-operating system which lets a drone take off and land and even recharge its batteries on its own is being tested by the Singapore Police Force (SPF).

The drone sits 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 such as cameras before it is launched.

Details of its operations, such as flight paths, can be configured and monitored remotely by an operator in an off-site command centre so no pilot has to be on site as is usual with drones.

The two drone boxes have been on trial at an industrial estate in the western part of the island since the end of April.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Elvis Chong said industrial estates are relatively deserted during the circuit breaker period but the police have to stay vigilant.

Such areas are susceptible to crimes such as housebreaking and theft.

"We don't want criminals to take the opportunity to break into these empty warehouses or office areas, because one crime is also too much for anyone to swallow, especially during these difficult periods," said DSP Chong, who is commanding officer of Clementi Neighbourhood Police Centre.

The drones, which are 1.79m wide and weigh about 10kg, monitor the industrial area and so reduce the need for patrolling officers. There are also plans for the system to be extended to residential estates later in the trial.

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 wind or rain.

The drones can fly within a radius of a few hundred metres, with cameras that have high-zoom capability. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Senior Engineer Low Hsien Meng from the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) Robotics, Automation and Unmanned Systems (Raus) Centre of Expertise said: "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 Tuck Meng from the SPF's operations department and head of the Home Team Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) unit said the quality of the footage is important so officers can get a clear understanding of the situation on the ground.

Police have been deploying conventional drones to complement ground operations for some time, such as for crowd control and surveillance during the 2020 countdown festivities at Marina Bay.

However, being able to function without an on-site operator means autonomous drones can be deployed safely in hazardous and remote sites, and used for search and rescue and supply delivery.

For example, HTX is also exploring the use of the technology to deliver automated external defibrillators within a shorter response time.

The present trial would allow HTX to collect important technical data by flying in an urban built-up environment and develop the confidence of operating in such terrain.

The trial will end once enough data has been collected.

"For most cases in Singapore, the aircraft will be flying through urban areas, so this actually contributes to the safety aspect in order to make this system more reliable and safer for both our officers as well as the public at large," said Mr Low.

The trial is also 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.

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