NTU to enable drones to fly safely in Singapore’s airspace

The university will develop a traffic management system for UAVs that is similar to how cars on the roads have traffic lights and lanes.

By Kareyst Lin
Jan. 3, 2017

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) of Singapore are developing a traffic management system for drones/Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

The system will consist of designated air-lanes and blocks, similar to how cars on the roads have traffic lights and lanes. Technologies that will be developed include smart and safe routing, detect-and-avoid systems, and traffic management to coordinate air traffic, NTU said in a press statement on 28 December 2016.

The initiative is named Traffic Management of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and is spearheaded by NTU's Air Traffic Management Research Institute (ATMRI).

It is important to develop a traffic management solution for UAVs that is tailored to the actual challenges faced by Singapore, given the huge growth of UAV traffic expected over the next decade, said NTU Professor Low Kin Huat, who is leading the research programme.

"At NTU, we have already demonstrated viable technologies such as UAV convoys, formation flying and logistics, which will soon become mainstream," said Low. "This new traffic management project will test some of the new concepts developed with the aim of achieving safe and efficient drone traffic in our urban airways."

"The implications of the project will have far-reaching consequences, as we are developing ways for seamless travel of unmanned aircrafts for different purposes without compromising safety, which is of paramount importance," Low added.

Coordinating centres to track airborne drones

To ensure that traffic is regulated across Singapore, a possible solution is the establishment of coordinating stations for UAV traffic. These stations can track all the UAVs that are in the air, schedule the traffic flow, monitor their speeds and ensure a safe separation between the UAVs.

Various scenarios will be tested using computer simulations and software to optimise UAV traffic routes, so as to minimise traffic congestions, said Mohamed Faisal bin Mohamed Salleh, the co-investigator of the programme, and Deputy Director at ATMRI.

"We will also look into proposing safety standards, for instance, how high UAVs should fly and how far they should be flying above buildings, taking privacy concerns and laws into consideration, and to suggest recommended actions during contingencies," said Faisal.

Key technologies

Currently, restricted airspace and zones where UAV operations are prohibited have already been identified, such as near airports and military facilities.

One of the concepts that will be tested is geofencing - virtual fences can be set up where UAVs can be automatically routed around a restricted geographical location such as the airport.

Another important research area is collision detection. UAVs will need to have sensors that enable detection and avoidance of collision with another UAV. This will allow UAVs to follow a set of actions to avoid any mid-air incidents, such as flying above, below, or around other UAVs.