SINGAPORE: It’s a bright, sunny day and you’re just stretching out to open your windows to let the warm rays into the house when you see a drone staring right back at you. 

Some residents, living in one of four Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks in Jurong East, could have experienced that recently.

That is because the HDB had embarked on a small-scale, week-long trial late in July to see if drones are able to complement building inspection efforts, particularly for hard to reach places or those that may pose more risk.

An HDB spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia that the agency and town councils carry out such regular inspections of public housing facades to make sure they are in good condition. These, the spokesperson said, are typically carried out by workers using gondolas.

That said, the intention of the drone pilot for the four HDB blocks was to “carry out more comprehensive inspections, especially at areas which are less accessible to workers using gondolas”, the official said in an email.

This comes even as building owners look set to come under greater pressure to have a regular inspection regime. Specifically, buildings taller than 13 metres and older than 20 years will have to be inspected every seven years, said then-Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee.

The drone inspections were carried out between Jul 26 and Aug 2, during a two-hour window in the morning and afternoon, HDB said.

When Channel NewsAsia visited one of the blocks and observed the inspection process earlier this month, it was apparent that safety was topmost in the minds of the outsourced drone operators.

HDB building inspection using drones 3

The team from Performance Rotors flying the drone from an empty basketball court. 

The team of six men was set up at an open basketball court with the drone taking pride of place in the middle, cordoned off by safety cones and tape.

Equipped with walkie-talkies, three of the men took up positions at the outer edges of the area where the drone will be hovering over. The drone operator stood a few steps behind the drone, watched on by two others.

The whole inspection process took about 10 to 15 minutes for one side of the HDB block, but it is unclear if the footage captured was sufficient or more flights were in the pipeline that day.

ASSISTED BY AI

The drone was operated by HUS Unmanned Systems, which was granted a permit to do so by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), said HDB in a circular notifying residents of the four blocks.

Making sense of the images taken will be done by an artificial intelligence (AI) system from H3 Zoom.AI, which, like HUS, belongs to Singapore-headquartered parent company H3 Dynamics Holdings.

Essentially, the drone will take thousands of pictures and these will be uploaded to the AI system hosted on the cloud, which allows for quick analysis to be done. The system will then identify defects in a report generated automatically after each inspection, with a shorter wait time to boot.

Software company H3 Zoom AI, in collaboration with JTC, has developed drone technology that reduces the time spent on conducting building checks from a few weeks to just days. These drones are also a safer alternative to the current inspection process, where workers use gondolas and ropes.

In a Channel NewsAsia report last month, Mr Shaun Koo, co-founder and chief technical officer of H3 Zoom.AI, said: “The solution aims to basically reduce fatalities for work-at-height (situations), and also better manage the manpower crunch in Singapore.

“It is (also) more cost effective to have this solution deployed than the manual inspection process,” Mr Koo added. 

However, while the system is able to pick out defects on concrete surfaces such as water marks, wall cracks and peeling paints, it is not programmed yet to detect rust or corrosion, that report noted.

PROTECTING RESIDENTS’ PRIVACY

In the circular, HDB also informed residents that as part of the inspection the drones will take images of different parts of the building facade and, if any images of residents were captured during the inspection, these images “will be treated with a masking software that will blur out the details”.

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A drone being used to capture images of a HDB building in Singapore to detect defects. 

Asked to elaborate on this, the HDB spokesperson said the agency has a “strict contractual agreement” with HUS that the drones are to capture only images of the building facade. HDB and the town council will use only the processed images with residents’ images masked out, the spokesperson added.

“Also under the contractual agreement with HDB, HUS is not permitted to publish, share, reproduce or use captured footage for any purpose beyond the pilot without HDB’s prior consent,” the spokesperson pointed out.

A provision shop owner at one of the four HDB blocks, Mr Sim, told Channel NewsAsia he witnessed the drone being flown during the building inspection. 

He had no issues with the use and concerns over privacy – “I’m a man, they want to take pictures then take lor,” Mr Sim said in Mandarin.

But he recounted how some female residents had complained to him about how drones should not be used and concerns over their privacy, especially if they were alone at home. 

Another resident, Hervy, didn’t have a negative reaction to the use of drones either. 

“I don’t mind, since I’m not at home most of the time. My parents are out working too,” he said.

He pointed out that different people have different thresholds for such use of drones, but said he has no issues with the use as long as people’s privacy is retained. 

Yet, even as the finer details of the use of drones to inspect public housing will no doubt be looked at by HDB, the week-long pilot was a historic moment for some in the drone community. 

Performance Rotors, the drone operator contracted by HUS to do the on-site inspection, was particularly effusive.

In a Facebook post on Jul 26 – the first day of the pilot – the company wrote: “Gentleman, today, you are making history.

“Today, you become the pioneer of Singapore’s drone industry, doing what none of the older, bigger drone companies have done. I feel so proud, and you should too.”

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