A traffic management system for drones will replicate in the air the laws that prevail on the road. Given Singapore's densely populated landscape and busy airspace, the flying of drones - officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles - must be carried out in a safe manner. It is thus timely that researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are undertaking a study to enable drones to fly safely and efficiently in the urban airspace.
Regulatory mechanisms must be capacious enough to take into account advances in everyday technology. Drones are being used increasingly by companies and government agencies to take photographs and conduct inspections. Drone- flying is becoming popular with hobbyists and there is rising interest in drone-racing as a sport. But, given a rise in drone accidents globally, there is a need to prevent drones from colliding and injuring people should they fall to the ground, especially if they are used to deliver mail and other items to homes in the near future.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) requires activity permits to be obtained for flying a drone within 5km of an aerodrome, or above 61m outside those areas. Operator permits are also required for drones above 7kg and those used commercially. As more drones take to the air, better flight management will help ensure that limited airspace is used efficiently.
The study by the NTU's Air Traffic Management Research Institute, which CAAS helped set up, seeks to come up with a system that could divide urban airspace into blocks - similar to lanes on a road - within which drones can be programmed to fly. Concepts being tested include virtual fences around restricted areas and having drones detect and avoid nearby drones. At a time when security is a perennial concern and drones could be misused, a traffic system for these aerial vehicles would be a boost to safety in more ways than one.