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Hold the cynicism. It's a long runway for flying taxis in S'pore

Those who pooh-pooh the idea should realise that with emerging technology, being a first mover has advantages


SINGAPORE'S Ministry of Transport had told The Business Times on Wednesday that it is in talks with some companies to try out flying taxis.

Online reactions to the news came swiftly, and many were snide. A Facebook user said: "Can we do the basic things well first?"

I presume he thinks the government should focus on current burning transport issues, but it is too easy to go down the tunnel of frustration and sarcasm.

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But adopting tunnel vision about human-carrying drones would be to miss the larger picture; this could well become a textbook case of how the country can deal with disruptive technologies.

Let me explain.

There is a long runway to the goal of having aerial transport in Singapore. It was conceived as part of the Ministry of Transport's vision for urban mobility by 2030; we are talking about 13 years from now.

So, from where we are, automated human-carrying drones is still greenfield technology - so new that we still haven't been able to figure out how to get drones to deliver packages - much less transport human beings.

But as with any emerging technology, this can present boundless opportunities 13 years down the road. For example, the iPhone was introduced 10 years ago, and the smartphone market has since evolved by leaps and bounds, spawning spinoff industries such as the one in wearable tech.

With greenfield technology, the advantage belongs to the first mover, be this a company or the whole economy. He who takes the first plunge can see what is needed to drive development forward, come up with new plans and policies to sustain growth, attract talent and create intellectual property.

Some countries are already staking their claims on nascent technologies: The Netherlands wants to be a leader in 3D printing; a Dutch company wants to print a bridge - a bridge! Finland wants to claim the territory of autonomous ships.

With the experimentation Singapore is doing in transport, infrastructure can be in place to facilitate the development of human-carrying drones; companies will find ready infrastructure here to test and refine their products. The 13-year runway also means that there is time to shape society's perception of such a technology.

Regulations can also evolve alongside. Germany, for instance, took time with policy-making and fund-raising that paved the way for the Volocopter - a two-person seater drone - to take flight.

As if to prove just how fast new technologies can disrupt, the government found itself disrupted on Friday. Last July, it issued a tender for a nation-wide bicycle-sharing scheme, thinking that some lead demand would be needed to spur the growth of such a sector and bring Singapore closer to being "car-lite".

On Friday, it said it was scrapping the tender, as three privately-funded bike-sharing firms have appeared this year.

A public official said at a lunch on Friday that the plan to try out flying taxis is good, because policymakers and businesses must always be ahead of the curve. "That's how you survive."

So let's remain open to the idea of human-carrying drones, instead of being overly focused on current issues.

But let's also keep the conversation open, for these are needed to drive Singapore's economy forward. One may have doubts, but - taking the bicycle-sharing scheme as an example - one's views may well have to be revised.

A researcher doubtful of flying taxis here said it's easy to dream, but not everything necessarily makes sense.

However, he added: "But it's a new technology, a new concept that may become cheaper to build."