singapore airobotics circuit breaker

Singapore government deploys drones to monitor coronavirus rule-breakers in critical “circuit breaker” period

Singapore may be close to ending its circuit breaker period, but the last leg is getting an assist from drones.

The Singaporean government on April 7 initiated what it called a “circuit breaker,” a time when Singaporeans are advised to stay home as much as possible in order to pre-empt escalating coronavirus infections.  As part of the strict circuit breaker period in Singapore, meetings, large gatherings, schools and nonessential businesses are closed (and dining establishments are restricted to delivery and takeout).

The punishments for rule-breakers are fairly steep: an instant fine of $300 if you’re caught flouting safe distancing rules such as not lining up at least 1m away from the people around you. For repeat offenders, stiffer penalties include prosecution in court or fines up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment for holding private or public social gatherings.

Singapore’s government has deployed more than 3,100 enforcement officers or safe distancing ambassadors on patrol.

circuit breaker singapore surveillance Raffles Place social distancing
A sign spells out social distancing measures at Raffles Place during the country’s Circuit Breaker period.

But they’re deploying drones to crack down on potential circuit breaker rule-breakers, too.

The Home Team Science & Technology Agency (HTX) of Singapore, a statutory board formed under Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs, is using drones to augment Singapore Police Force’s (SPF) efforts in policing. The drones are there to “track anomalies such as congregations of people,” which are banned during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period.

Since the drones are flying over crowds, the project could presumably be the world’s first government-approved flight over a major metropolis.

That could be a good step in testing of how drones can safely fly over people for other use cases, like drone delivery. If Singapore can successfully demonstrate drone flights through major cities, other countries might be more amenable to allowing drones to flying over their cities too.

But this use case, in particular, of monitoring crowds isn’t sitting right for some. Some San Diego residents were upset after hearing the Chula Vista Police Department planned to use drones equipped with loudspeakers to communicate information related to the coronavirus. Protests erupted in Connecticut over Draganfly’s temperature checking drone.

Even DJI itself released a memo suggesting that drones aren’t always the solution to fixing problems brought about by coronavirus. They’re not always the most useful tool. And presumably, DJI doesn’t want drones to earn a bad name as a scary surveillance tool.

Though, perhaps the surveillance drones are less of a concern among Singapore’s citizens than in a place like the U.S. The country has a history of being more used to community-level surveillance, and some experts suggest that the country’s acceptance of surveillance may have helped lessen the severity of the outbreak and make lockdown easier.

circuit breaker singapore surveillance
A lone jogger averts crowds along the quay in Singapore.

The drones being used by Singapore’s government were designed by Israel-based drone startup Airobotics, which was founded in 2014 builds drones designed to run missions automatically, for monitoring, inspecting, surveying, and securing urban areas or large industrial facilities. In 2018, Airobotics was named as one of the 25 emerging tech companies to watch by The Wall Street Journal.

Singapore’s circuit breaker period is set to end on June 1. After that, the government said it would work to reopen the country in three phases over several months.

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