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SINGAPORE: The Singapore Land Authority is looking to use drones to perform scheduled inspections on offshore islands under its care – remotely and without a pilot.

In March, SLA conducted trials on Pulau Seringat and Kusu Island – an area of some 42 hectares among the Southern Islands region – to explore the possible uses of drones for operational purposes. 

Conducted with robotics experts HUS Unmanned Systems, the drone flew according to pre-planned waypoints and pre-defined flight schedules instead of being manually piloted.

Trials for unpiloted drone flights take place over Southern Islands - 1

SLA and HUS Unmanned Systems conducted drone trials on Kusu Island in March. (Photo: Singapore Land Authority)

Currently, drones in Singapore have to be flown with a pilot on the ground maintaining line of sight with the device for safety purposes.

But the low population density of the offshore islands means the use of unpiloted drones can be considered.

SLA has sought the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore’s permission to operate the unpiloted drones.

If approved, it would be one of the first agencies to do so.

Mr Vincent Aw, Head of Systems and Support, Land Management at the Singapore Land Authority, told Channel NewsAsia that the high-resolution imaging capabilities of the drones mean they can pick up maintenance issues that are out-of-reach and also humanly difficult to see – such as hairline cracks or damages on rooftops.

SLA already conducts similar maintenance checks using drones – albeit piloted – at its other properties on the mainland.

“We would like the drones to fly on pre-determined schedules, cover the island in a pre-set manner. From there, maintenance issues will be picked up for our officers,” said Mr Aw. 

“We will probably do it quite frequently so that we have a very comprehensive inspection regime without having officers cover the site.”

When asked about safety precautions, he said the intention is to fly the drone when there are not many people on the ground, such as before the first passenger ferry arrives on the island. 

Kusu Island 1

28,000 visitors go to Kusu Island during the pilgrimage season to pay their respects at the Tua Pek Kong Temple and the island’s keramats. (Photo: Gwyneth Teo)

Currently, only the caretaker of the Tua Pek Kong Temple lives on the island. 

“Other than that, the drone will have built-in safety features to ensure it returns to home whenever there are issues detected on board,” he added.

OTHER TECHNOLOGICAL AIDS

If operationalised, the drone will join a host of other technologies deployed on the islands since SLA took over management of 10 offshore islands in March 2017.

They include Kusu Island, St John’s Island, Lazarus Island and Pulau Seringat, which are all located south of Singapore.

These technologies help the agency perform its key duties on the islands – which are primarily maintaining the grass, housekeeping, pest control and security.

For instance, the agency has implemented a remote utilities monitoring (RUM) dashboard to keep track of water and diesel levels on the islands.

There are no direct utility lines to the offshore islands, so water and diesel tanks would have to be manually replenished – meaning they are ordered and brought in by boat – so that supply is not disrupted.

Previously, officers would have to literally eyeball the water levels in Kusu Island’s two water tanks – marked with a simple ball gauge. 

Considering the tanks are mounted several metres above ground, it was hard to see the gauge, especially against the glare of the sun or in heavy rain.

It was also time-consuming, considering officers would have to travel on a ferry from the mainland just to perform such routine checks.

Now, using the RUM, officers can keep an eye on the water levels even from their office on the mainland, and need only visit the island once a month, rather than weekly.

They can also focus their attention on other pressing issues.

BENEFITS TO VISITORS

The technologies ensure a level of comfort for visitors that goes unnoticed. 

For instance, the water tanks supply water to the toilets and a hawker centre that opens only during the pilgrimage season, which takes place during the ninth lunar month. 

Kusu Island 2

28,000 visitors go to Kusu Island during the pilgrimage season to pay their respects at the Tua Pek Kong Temple and the island’s keramats. (Photo: Gwyneth Teo)

During this period, the water tanks – which have a total capacity of 150 litres – have to be topped up every day.

Otherwise, the water supply can last two weeks during the off-peak season.

In recent years, some 28,000 pilgrims visit the island during each season.

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