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The Big Read in short: Dealing with the drone conundrum

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine how Singapore can embrace the rise of drone technology while mitigating its threats. This is a shortened version of the feature

Like a double-edged sword, the drones’ niftiness and ease of operation also lend themselves to nefarious uses.

Like a double-edged sword, the drones’ niftiness and ease of operation also lend themselves to nefarious uses.

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine how Singapore can embrace the rise of drone technology while mitigating its threats. This is a shortened version of the feature, which can be found here.

SINGAPORE — In the United States, drones fitted with thermal imaging cameras can be deployed to help firefighters search for survivors in a burning building.

Over in Rwanda, American firm Zipline has, since 2016, been using drones to deliver medicine to inaccessible places at a relatively low cost.

Here in Singapore, drones are being used for various purposes — ranging from documenting the country’s heritage and history and mapping out golf courses, to scouring rollercoasters in the dark for abnormalities. Other potential uses include parcel delivery, as well as inspections of buildings, trees, ships and sewage tunnels, for example.

But like a double-edged sword, the drones’ niftiness and ease of operation also lend themselves to nefarious uses.

Mexican drug cartels have replaced human mules with quadcopters — dubbed by the US media as narco-drones — to smuggle contraband across the US border.

The terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had also reportedly used over-the-counter drones to drop grenades on its enemies in Syria.

Lately, drones have also gained infamy for causing air traffic disruption. In Britain last December, a drone sighted at London’s Gatwick Airport caused a three-day disruption to the country’s second-busiest airport.

Singapore’s Changi Airport has not been spared either, with two separate incidents of drone incursions occurring within a week recently.

As a result, a total of 37 flights at Changi Airport were delayed on June 18 and 19, while another arriving flight was diverted to Kuala Lumpur.

On June 24, about 15 departures and three arrivals were delayed, while seven other flights were diverted, owing to bad weather and unauthorised drone activity. Investigations are ongoing.

The flying of drones without a permit is banned in Singapore if they are flown within 5km of airports or military airbases, or at altitudes above 61m.

Offenders could face a fine of up to S$20,000 or a jail term of up to 12 months, or both.

In May, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore’s (CAAS) set up an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advisory Panel (UASAP) to review the regulatory framework for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). The panel is expected to provide its recommendations by early next year.

Nevertheless, following the Changi Airport intrusions, the Government announced during a parliamentary session on July 8 that it would introduce a mandatory registration regime for all drones in the Republic.

Larger, more capable drones will have to be licensed while stiffer penalties for errant drone users are also being considered.

Despite the threats that these devices could potentially pose, experts interviewed by TODAY were quick to stress that an outright ban on drones is neither feasible nor ideal.

“The bad guys, they don’t care about bans. If they want to do something bad, they can easily do it,” said Dr James Wang, a professor with the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering.

Dr Daniel He, president of the Multirotor Association of Singapore, said that attempting to ban any technology the moment it runs into difficulties is a “sure way for Singapore to fall behind and kill off any innovation and progress that we hope to achieve”.

Given the rapid advancement in drone technology around the world, TODAY looks at how Singapore can embrace its rise while mitigating its serious threats.


Being a small country, airspace in Singapore is limited to begin with.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore states that drones are not allowed over “restricted, danger, protected, [or] prohibited areas and not within five kilometers of an aerodrome or airbase.

In essence, this means that operators are not allowed to fly over or near:

  • Changi airport

  • Police camps and military bases

  • Nature reserves

  • Selected recreational parks under the NParks that carry “no-drone” signs.

Apart from these restrictions, drone hobbyist Farhan Tahir noted that private property owners can also stop the flying of drones above their properties.

“This really gives us less spaces where we can fly,” said the administrator of the Facebook hobby group, Universal Drones – Singapore.

While the space outdoors is limited, indoor facilities, such as the sports halls may provide a safe space for beginner drone operators and researchers to pilot their drones, but they are far from ideal as they do not simulate real flying conditions.


With these tiny aircraft changing the aviation landscape, existing laws related to drones are being revised or new ones introduced in many countries, including Singapore.  

Dr Paw Yew Chai, an associate professor from the Engineering Cluster at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), said the registration of drones can help operators become more responsible.

It might mean that only certain approved drones with safety features such as geo-fencing can be registered, he added.

Registration provides tracking and identification of the drone and drone users, he reiterated. “This creates user accountability and facilitates law enforcement efforts,” he said.

Agreeing, Dr Wang added: “You just have to put your registration number on the drone and if it crashes, or flies somewhere it shouldn’t be and gets tracked down, at least we know who the owner is.”

Dr Wang acknowledged that this would not prevent bad hats from committing malicious acts.

This is where anti-drone technologies can come in, said Dr He.

However, as the technologies are relatively new, experts had previously told TODAY that it is far easier to cause disruptions than to prevent them.


Hobby shop owner Ronald Yong said that if drone operations are going to become part of future careers, it does not make sense to overly limit them.

The general manager of Singapore Hobby Supplies, which he describes as a one-stop shop for drone enthusiasts, said the public at large needs to focus less on the negative aspects of drone technology.

“People should be informed of the good uses of drones as well. They can have applications that will one day make a difference in your life,” said the 44-year-old.

Dr He felt that the dilemma of drone use should be addressed with a hard-nosed approach, driven by data in analysing the risks and benefits.

He said: “I would venture that the greater challenge is how to encourage and nurture drone use while making it as safe as possible.”

Some of the suggestions that the experts proposed include:

  • Public education on what is safe drone operating behavior.

  • A tiered registration and licensing scheme that is proportionate to the size and capabilities of the class of drones

  • Regular and effective enforcement, as well as penalties for errant behavior.

  • Opening up more airspace for drones by designating certain areas as drone parks.

Ultimately, the solution would have to be multi-pronged, encompassing a strong educational and regulatory framework, said Dr He.

He added: “(We need) to create safe spaces of sufficient size for people to practise and experiment; engage young people and create interest through drone programmes and sports.” 

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