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Airborne Drones for a Crime-free Zone
How SPF and HTX are trialling a new drone box system to fight crime.

While many of us stay at home during this Circuit Breaker period to fight the spread of COVID-19, our Home Team Guardians are working harder than ever to combat crime on the ground – with the help of eyes in the sky. 

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GRAPHIC: Home Team News

It was a mid-week afternoon and I was on the roof of a nondescript industrial building in the western part of Singapore. In a corner of the roof stood two rectangular grey structures about two metres tall. These drone boxes are part of an initiative by the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) to trial drone operations.

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The drone box system in action. PHOTOS: Tiffany Tan

I watched as the panels on the top of one of the drone boxes slid open to reveal the star of the show – an advanced drone measuring about 1.8 metres wide and weighing about 10kg. With its propellers spinning, the drone lifted off and embarked on a flight path that took it over the surrounding industrial estate.

Supporting Our Boots on the Ground 
In recent years, SPF has introduced drones with various capabilities to complement Police operations. Equipped with lights, cameras and speakers, such drones offer officers a better situational picture in order to enhance their responses on the ground. 

This latest drone trial began in early May 2020 and demonstrates how SPF and HTX are rising to the challenge in these challenging times by employing innovative technologies to support crimefighting on the ground.

“The industrial estates can get rather deserted during this Circuit Breaker period, and the Police need to keep up our presence to detect unusual or illegal activities,” explained Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Elvin Chong, Commanding Officer of Clementi Neighbourhood Police Centre. “We don’t want criminals to take the opportunity to break into warehouses or offices, especially during this difficult period.”

The Drone Box System: Automated for Effectiveness 
Walking us through the drone box system’s capabilities was Low Hsien Meng, Senior Engineer, Robotics, Automation and Unmanned Systems, HTX. An aerospace engineer by training, he worked closely with his HTX colleagues to conduct a comprehensive review of the operational requirements and deployment area before deploying the drone box system. 

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Low Hsien Meng of HTX with a tablet that can show “live” video from the drone in flight. PHOTO: Tiffany Tan

Unlike conventional drones, the drone box concept allows the preflight process to be largely automated. Within each drone box are robotics systems that complete preparatory tasks like attaching mission-specific payloads (such as cameras) and changing batteries. This allows the drone to be prepped for flight by an operator at the Command and Control Centre. 

“With routine tasks and activities taken care of by automation, SPF officers can focus on what’s important, which is to complete the mission at hand,” explained Hsien Meng. 

Airborne Force Multiplier
I watched as the drone flew across the industrial estate, stopping at a series of preset waypoints. While in flight, cameras on the drone capture video that’s transmitted in real time to the Command and Control Centre. “This video can also be sent to officers who are on foot patrol or in a vehicle, via a tablet,” said Hsien Meng. “This gives them a better situational picture, especially of areas that are hard to access.”

Another feature of the drone box system is that it can deploy a drone without a pilot or visual line-of-sight control. With a few clicks of a button, an operator at the Command and Control Centre can deploy the drone and fly it beyond line-of-sight, extending its effective range in an operation. 

Monitoring the drone’s progress, Hsien Meng explained how the trial has yielded important data for his team. “This is a very good opportunity for us to collect real ops data on system reliability and mission effectiveness,” he said. “With this information, HTX engineers can customise solutions to better support officers in the field.”

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DSP Sum Tuck Meng (centre) with fellow UAV pilots. PHOTO: Tiffany Tan

Among the officers sharing their feedback with HTX is DSP Sum Tuck Meng, Officer-in-Charge, UAV Operations, Home Team UAV Unit, Operations Department, SPF. Having served 25 years with SPF, he’s excited by the capabilities offered by the drone box system. “With its automated functions and ability to perform virtual aerial Policing, it has the potential to be a force multiplier for our ground patrols,” said DSP Sum. 

As the drone completed its route and returned under the watchful eyes of Hsien Meng and DSP Sum, a second drone had finished its automated preflight check and soon took off to cover a different area of the industrial estate – little noticed by most people, but playing a vital role during this challenging period to keep us all safe.
 

Taking Flight
For more on drone capabilities in the Home Team, check out: 
- HTX and SPF Collaborate to Use Drones to Enhance Ground Operations During COVID-19
- Eyes in the Sky to Guide Boots on the Ground
© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.


  1. by Tiffany Tan
  2. 22 May 2020
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