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​Drones might provide the solution to the next crisis

Published on: 27-May-2020

​The Covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated that we need to be prepared for extreme and unusual scenarios - "black swan" events. The adoption of new technologies (for instance, digital solutions) has and will further help societies to prepare for future crises of an asymmetrical nature. Such a key emerging technological solution is the adoption of drones (or formally, "unmanned aerial vehicles", UAVs).

For instance, how would we respond to a more contagious virus or a pathogen that survives on surfaces for much longer - a study suggested that Sars-COV-2 can survive up to three days on surfaces, assuming there is no disinfection - thus rendering human contact with food or products dangerous?

There could be other reasons, some of which we are already familiar with: for instance, a severe and/or prolonged period of haze could make going outdoors extremely unhealthy. 

A terror threat could force parts of a city to close down for some time. A fire could also make parts of a building or a city inaccessible. 

Extreme weather due to climate change should not be excluded and movement might again be problematic. All these could threaten typical logistical routes within a city that relies mainly on a road network, thus necessitating alternative methods of product delivery.


UAVs can reduce, if not eliminate, human-to-human or human-toobject-to-human contact. It can easily access areas unreachable by land, can mostly function irrespective of air quality and can deliver in extreme climatic conditions.

There are other advantages of course: the network and routes of drones can be optimised to allow for minimising costs and maximising efficiency.

They are durable, flexible, can reach different altitudes, reduce the risk of traffic accidents, can work 24/7 and, importantly, their energy cost is very small, relative to cars and motorbikes.

Notice that futuristic scenarios could include transportation of humans too: for instance, patients who need to get to a hospital quickly or to evacuate a building.

Indeed, hospitals in Poland are considering UAVs to transport Covid-19 test samples; China is testing parcel delivery, and Japan is seriously considering flying cars. 

Here in Singapore, UAVs have been proposed to inspect pipelines at Jurong Island.

These ideas may well have been calculated to stimulate debate on how the UAV technology should be implemented.

One set of problems is purely technological: safety, effectiveness and efficiency. Another set is related to air-traffic management and control - managing the airspace of cities is something relatively new.

An equally critical part is the human aspect: We should not forget that many technological solutions failed because they did not take into account the human response to the technology in question. (Google Glass, the smart glasses come to mind.)

Firstly, the new technology needs to be - in principle - acceptable by the public. 

The Nanyang Technological University's Air Traffic Management Research Institute, in collaboration with the Nanyang Business School, conducted an online survey to understand public perception of drone use in Singapore between April and June last year.

Based on the responses of 1,050 Singapore residents, the researchers found that close to 76 per cent of the respondents were familiar with drone technology, although they have not used drones before. 

Most of the respondents (83 per cent) agreed that drone technology could be beneficial to society if there are proper government policies and regulations in place. 

The second issue refers to the interaction of urban dwellers with drones, so issues such as privacy, noise, annoyance or even the aesthetics of drones should be

Finally, and very importantly, history has shown that the introduction of new technologies might in many instances threaten jobs, at least in the short term. 

However, it is automation (and not technology per se) that usually affects employment. There could be creative solutions - delivery drivers could be retrained as drone drivers for instance, in a way that helps in maintaining employment while minimising the drivers' exposure to

Thus, UAVs could be the solution to a next similar crisis - be it virus, climate or terror-related. All involved stakeholders - business, consumers, policymakers, the academia - should gear up in order to allow Singapore to have this option in hand.

* The writer is an associate professor at the Nanyang Business School of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He had two co-writers: Lim Beng Chong, associate professor at the same school and Low Kin Huat, professor and programme director of the Air Traffic Management Research Institute, NTU's School
of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Source: The Business Times, 27 May 2020

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