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[SINGAPORE] Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) operated by remote control or computers, are buzzing their way out of battlefields to boardrooms, including those in Singapore.
The industry is projected to be worth over US$89 billion in the next decade. According to aerospace research firm Teal Group, UAV spending will more than double over the next 10 years from current worldwide expenditures of US$5.2 billion annually to US$11.6 billion. And several startups here are getting into the game.
But there are also serious challenges: the prevailing lack of an international regulatory framework for UAV operations continues to pose accountability and safety issues that, if not addressed promptly, may impede the wider adoption of drones, said observers.
Businesses' interest in drones is driven by their diverse and increasingly expanding commercial applications, as well as the growing affordability of drone services and development.
"In Singapore, there is growing public interest in civilian unmanned aircraft activities for . . . commercial purposes. There are also several companies in Singapore seeking to grow the commercial unmanned aerial system industry here," Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said during a July parliamentary debate on UAV regulations.
For instance, drones are now used by Singapore companies to inspect oil and gas flare stacks in petrochemical plants, scrutinise underground pipelines for leakages, calculate sand-pile volumes in construction sites, and perform aerial mapping, photography and videography.
Said Zhang Weiliang, founder of homegrown drone-making startup, Avetics Global: "The value of drones is in reducing manpower and cost for Singapore companies. Avetics, for one, has helped a major construction company reduce labour and cost by three times by working together on a sand-pile volume project."
Before drones, calculating sand-pile volumes usually involved the use of laser scanners or cranes which require intensive labour and can cost over S$10,000 for a small project. Avetics now offers a drone fitted with a camera and programmed to travel along plotted control points on the ground, which allows it to take 3D measurements when it flies above the site.
Another player is HOPETechnik, a local engineering startup which develops its own UAV. It said on its website: "They (drones) replace manual labour in dangerous and spatially-challenging surveillance activities (ensuring) safe and efficient detection of problems, reliable operations even in light rain, and fast deployment."
Its half-day rate for an electro optic drone (to detect faults in pipelines) is about S$1,500, while that for a thermal imaging drone (to detect leakages of hot fumes in pipelines) is about S$2,000.
Garuda Robotics, believed to be the newest startup in the drone technologies scene here, does not develop its own drones; it has created a cloud platform that allows companies to control an entire fleet of drones through a computer, instead of manually flying them.
The nine-month-old startup uses drones manufactured by HOPETechnik for field deployments.
Said Garuda's co-founder and chief executive officer Mark Yong: "We're getting plenty of interest from customers across multiple industry verticals for our industrial infrastructure inspection services. These early customers are visionary enough to recognise how much more efficient and safe their work operations can be by replacing human labour with drone systems."
But Mr Yong said that the current absence of an international regulatory framework for UAV operations is undesirable, as it creates uncertainty among those "trying to build the future".
Some form of licensing, certification and liability protection is required to ensure safety in drone operations, he said. Moreover, inconsistent global standards in terms of what drone operators can and cannot do make operations cumbersome for companies with plans for global expansion.
"Regulators (need to) get a handle on how best to maintain public safety while not hampering drone development," he said.