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Think Big, Think Wide, Think Far
Meet the future, now – how robotics is transforming the way the Home Team operates.

As a child, Cheng Wee Kiang liked nothing better than to take his toys apart and put them back together again. Now, as a Senior Assistant Director with the Office of the Chief Science and Technology Officer (OCSTO) at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), he works with Home Team Departments to develop and deploy technologies that keep Singapore safe and secure. We pulled him away from his robots for a chat.

Wee Kiang (right) with the SCDF exoskeleton prototype. PHOTO: OCSTO

How did you become an engineer? 
It has always been in my blood. As a kid, whenever I played with Lego, my first build would be according to the instructions, but my second was always my own. That’s why I chose to study Mechanical Engineering at the National University of Singapore, so that I could get my hands dirty, really take things apart to see how they worked, and put them back together again. 

After graduating in 1998, I joined the Defence Science and Technology Agency and worked on robotics-related projects before coming to OCSTO in 2012, just as MHA was expanding its capabilities in Science and Technology. 

What are the similarities between your previous work and what you do now at MHA?
There are certain commonalities between defence engineering and applications of robotics in homeland security; they share many of the same conceptual and technical building blocks. So I’m happy to be able to take what I’ve learnt as an engineer and to apply it in Home Team operations. That’s what keeps me going. 

What robotics projects are you currently working on? 
There are several major projects that our team is engaged in. One is the Automated Passenger In-Car Clearance System (APICS). This was conceptualised in 2014, then started development the year after. 

Secured, automated clearance: The APICS system has been on trial at Woodlands and Tuas Checkpoints since July 2017. PHOTOS: OCSTO

We worked with the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and started with a blank piece of paper. Our goal was to create a system that can seamlessly integrate robotics, sensors, biometrics and security technologies, to automatically clear car travellers. Significant effort was dedicated to ensure that Human Factors Engineering design principles were applied to APICS, enabling intuitive usage both for our officers as well as car travellers. 

Currently, each vehicle clearance counter is manned by an ICA officer who manually performs immigration clearance for car travellers. We want to make use of APICS to streamline this process while further enhancing security and allowing ICA officers to perform more critical security tasks. So our challenge is to balance ease of clearance with security. 

APICS is now in its third iteration and we’re currently enhancing several Human Factors Engineering aspects on the reach of the robotic arms, refining the handheld devices and improving our infographics. We’re planning for live trials to push the system to the limit, and to get feedback from the public. 

SCDF exoskeleton 01
Frontline mech support: A system of pneumatic pistons on the SCDF exoskeleton helps fire-fighters bear loads of more than 60kg. PHOTO: OCSTO

How is robotics changing the way Home Team officers work? 
It has already enhanced our operations in many ways, and has the potential to do so much more. Another initiative that will be undergoing trials soon is our exoskeleton project with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). 

Right now, our fire-fighters carry a baseline load of about 20kg in terms of their breathing apparatus and fire-fighting outfits. With additional hoses, nozzles and specialised equipment, this may go up to 60kg or more, and they often have to make multiple trips. What the exoskeleton system aims to achieve is to increase the load-carrying capacity and endurance of fire-fighters, so that they can carry equipment or convey casualties out of a danger zone, with minimal fatigue. 

We also considered that SCDF operations may involve climbing staircases and walking over obstacles. So one requirement we had for the exoskeleton is that it can carry loads up and down 10 stories. 

We’ll be spending the next six months on trials with a select group of SCDF fire-fighters. We want to find out the functional and performance aspects of the exoskeleton, and also take the opportunity to study the physiological data collected from our fire-fighters. 

What drives your team of engineers to apply Science and Technology to Home Team operations? 
The management is very supportive of us leveraging technology and making them work in different contexts; we’re encouraged to think big, think wide and think far, and this triggers us to make things happen.

We want to push the boundaries of what Science and Technology can do for the Home Team. Our concepts may be out of this world and we may encounter roadblocks, but we’ll keep pushing ahead.
© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.

  1. by Mike Tan
  2. 19 April 2018
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