As drones take to the skies around the world, governments and institutions are scrambling to figure out how to best regulate them. In Singapore, researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have started looking for ways to allow hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly efficiently and safely, any time.

The goal, according to the university, is to develop a traffic management system for UAVs consisting designated air-lanes and blocks, similar to how cars on the roads have traffic lights and lanes.

The initiative, named Traffic Management of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, is led by NTU's Air Traffic Management Research Institute (ATMRI), a joint research centre by NTU and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). It aims to research and develop air traffic management solutions for Singapore and the Asia Pacific region, including UAV traffic management which is one of its key programmes.

NTU drone management 01 (cr) Figure 1: The research, tailoured to urban environments like Singapore, includes a management system that divides airspace into blocks—like lakes on an expressway. (Source: NTU)

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

ATMRI senior research fellow Mohamed Faisal Bin Mohamed Salleh, the co-investigator of the programme, said various scenarios will be tested out using computer simulations and software to optimise UAV traffic routes, so as to minimise traffic congestions.

“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, who is also deputy director at ATMRI.

One proposed strategy is to use the current infrastructure such as open fields for take-off and landing and having UAVs fly above buildings and HDB flats, which can act as emergency landing sites to minimise risk to the public.

Currently, restricted airspace and zones where UAV operations are prohibited have already been identified, such as near airports and military facilities. The researchers will test out several concepts, such as geofencing. The idea is to set up virtual fences where UAVs can be automatically routed around a restricted geographical location such as the airport.

Another important research area will be 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.