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Drones in the Zone

Posted on | 27 May 2022

Hero Image of Drone Task Force members with drone in tunnel

Who would have thought the Land Transport Authority (LTA) would have a task force for airborne vehicles? But Unmanned Aircraft Systems — or drones — are proving valuable in the work we do. Here are some fun facts about the flying machines and the Drone Task Force behind them.

Origins: The DTF story

Back in 2016, the Ministry of Transport launched an exploration into drone technology. Could it improve work processes across all sectors? LTA set up our own Drone Task Force to find out, led by Mr Tan Kok Jin, Director, Cross Island Line Phase 1 (Civil Team 1) and Ms Gracia Tan, Deputy Director, Contracts (Civil 1).

They inducted an enthusiastic team of drone pilots — all volunteers — which has since conducted a series of trials, and — yes! Drones are used today as part of our everyday operations.

It’s not a toy, it’s for work!

Drones are used to take aerial photographs and videos of LTA’s various construction worksites. The aerial footage allows us to track progress, plan better, and get the “big picture” in safety and environmental inspections.

We have also performed trials for checking the condition of elevated infrastructure, like ventilation fans in road tunnels.

Techy things we love
Hero image of Chief Trainer Yew Huat with Drone

Check out some nifty ways these compact devices help our daily work!

  • Making far look near

The drones used by our taskforce have cameras which can zoom in on defects or whatever we are scrutinising on our worksites.

  • Splashing light

When we need to, light sources can be mounted on them for operations conducted in the dark.

  • A different kind of kite

We sometimes use a thin, 60m-long cable that tethers the drone to a battery pack. Not only does this give us up to two hours of hover power but it prevents accidental straying into the flight paths of aircraft too.

  • Look ma, no hands!

We can programme the drones to fly autonomously following pre-determined flight paths. It makes for a seamless mission which also saves time.

  • 3D modelling

Drone photogrammetry has been a new aspect we experimented with — converting images into virtual 3D models that can be measured and manipulated. One of these trials was in partnership with NUS, where we conducted 3D mapping of excavations at a worksite to monitor the progress and earthwork quantity.

Uh, let’s not go there…

Drones have their limits. Outdoors, we are restricted from flying in areas which are protected or security-sensitive. Our drones are not weather-proof, either, so rainy days are no-fly days.

Operating indoors, too, can be challenging. It is tricky trying to control a flight in environments where GPS does not work, such as within an MRT station or train tunnel. The magnetic interference from escalator motors — and even the metallic architectural finishes — in MRT stations can also affect the orientation and stability of the drone.

So where’s the most surreal place we’ve employed our drones to?
Image of the drone task force team at a water storage tank

…inside a big underground water-storage tank! Our pilots entered through a small manhole, and the drone had to be lowered with a rope. Artificial lighting was installed, but it was a gruelling effort without GPS available inside!

Where we get our drones

The drones flown by our pilots are commercially available. This makes them easily accessible for our vendors and contractors to eventually carry out the operations.

About the Drones Task Force: Our trailblazing trainer

Our very own Mr Low Yew Huat, Project Manager, Thomson-East Coast Line (Civil Team 5) was the pioneer pilot who devised what became LTA’s training material. A passionate drone hobbyist, Yew Huat structures training so that it is customised for LTA’s scope of work.

“My favourite part of being in the Drone Task Force is the exploratory trials. Then, seeing the use of drones gain traction in operations, as well as how more young engineers are aspiring to become drone pilots is fulfilling!”

The Task Force Chief Trainer, together with his team of in-house trainers and assessors, has to date overseen the CAAS certification of five batches of drone pilots across various Groups and Divisions — that’s more than 100 staff, including 10 women.

New licensing and regulatory requirements were recently introduced, and 30 pilots now form a small, agile drone force within LTA, while external contractors take on a share of drone operations too.

Task Force Trivia
So is this the coolest job?

Here’s what members from the Drone Task Force team have to say!

Image of the Drone Task Force team at Jurong Port
Aerial photo taken by a drone of the TEL train being lifted from container ship
“Capturing the aerial photos and videos of the unloading of TEL trains from a berthed container ship got my heart racing!”

– Ms Azlinda Ibrahim, Deputy Project Manager, Cross Island Line Phase 1 (Civil Team 1)

“It was nerve-wracking but definitely an exhilarating experience!”

– Ms Mazriah Mahzan, Assistant Manager (Admin), Project Admin-Directorate

“It’s an exciting time — the advent of drone technology offers new opportunities for environmental management at large worksites.”

– Ms Amabel Chan, Assistant Environmental Manager, Safety & Contracts

“This is great news, because using drones to take aerial photos is definitely more efficient than conventional surveying.”

– Mr Foo Chee Chong, Senior Project Engineer, Cross Island Line Phase 1 (Civil Team 1)

“It has been an amazing experience and definitely one for the books! Capturing aerial photography and videography have never been much easier and efficient.”

– Ms Nur Amira Binte Amran, Prinicpal Assistant Project Engineer, Cross Island Line (Civil Team 1)

Image of drone task force team using drone
Image of drone task force

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