Facility launched in SUTD in Changi to test drones without breaking no-fly-zone rules

The testing area was converted from an open-air courtyard in the middle of the campus and is shielded with a 20m-high net. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Drone testers have a spot in Changi to take their devices to the skies without worrying about breaching airspace restrictions.

Nestled within the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), the Aerial Arena was launched on Friday to support the school’s robotics initiatives.

The testing area was converted from an open-air courtyard in the middle of the campus and is shielded with a large net around 20m high – or four storeys – to prevent drones from escaping into restricted airspace.

Associate Professor Foong Shaohui, who led the facility’s development, said permission to fly drones in the Changi area is hard to come by due to airspace curbs, as the airport is less than 5km away.

Students and researchers typically go to open spaces like an empty field or a secluded place to test their drones, but these areas usually lack amenities like toilets and access to food, drink and power sources, he added.

Flyers are often at the mercy of the weather while transport options are limited, and it is hard to test at night because lighting is poor, he said.

As the new arena is within SUTD, testers can have access to food, power, equipment and function rooms. The site is equipped with 5G systems that testers can tap for their projects.

They can use bigger drones here as the space is larger than most indoor test sites available, said Prof Foong, adding that they can quickly pack up and seek shelter in the school when it starts to rain.

The site will be opened to other schools and drone hobbyists at a later stage, said Prof Foong, who works in SUTD’s engineering product development department.

Speaking at the launch of the Aerial Arena, Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said the netted outdoor facility helps to overcome the constraints of Singapore’s limited airspace.

Dr Tan, who is also Second Minister for Trade and Industry, said: “While SUTD is located in a ‘no-fly zone’ due to its proximity to Changi Airport, the Aerial Arena at SUTD will be able to support the flight-testing of drones and open-air testing of other technologies that require three-dimensional space.”

Speaking at the National Robotics Programme’s sixth-anniversary event at SUTD, he noted that robotics is an important industry here as it boosts productivity, safety and quality in the workplace.

Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng (front row, third from right) with representatives from the various companies at the National Robotics Programme (NRP) at its 6th anniversary celebrations at SUTD on Feb 10, 2023. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Dr Tan said there are at least 200 robotics companies in Singapore today, including 80 start-ups.

The Aerial Arena joins the list of drone testing sites here, including an indoor one in Seletar and an unmanned aircraft flying area at Pandan Reservoir.

There has been a rising interest in drones, with more people signing up for classes, but the enthusiasm is often met with the lack of airspace to operate them safely.

Enthusiasts can sign up for beginner courses, or more advanced ones to obtain an Unmanned Aircraft Pilot Licence which is needed to fly drones commercially.

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