SINGAPORE: Are drones the future of Singapore's postal service and do they have the potential to be used to deliver mail across the country?
In September 2015, SingPost successfully tested a mail run from mainland Singapore to Pulau Ubin using a drone, saying it was the first time in the world that a postal service has managed to use an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for point-to-point recipient-authenticated mail delivery.
More than a year on, SingPost's head of Post Office Network and Digital Services Dr Bernard Leong gave an update on what the company has learned from the groundbreaking trial.
"At the company level, drone delivery is a potential solution to our manpower challenges," Dr Leong said in a post on the website of the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) on Thursday (Mar 23).
He noted that Pulau Ubin was not a random destination for the test flight, remembering how SingPost had to recall its oldest postman - then 73 - twice from retirement to deliver about 40 letters a day to the island's residents. With drone delivery, it would complement the company's efforts to "upskill" its postmen.
Sharing details of the trial, Dr Leong said the drone deployed to Pulau Ubin flew 2km to a landing zone on the island where a postman waited with a smartphone to authenticate that he was the rightful recipient.
The drone was programmed so that it would only land and allow the intended recipient to collect the package when it received the authentication signal. If the signal is not received within three minutes, the drone would return to the delivery base, Dr Leong added.
The flight path of the SingPost drone trial from mainland to offshore island. (Photo: SingPost)
"Notably, this innovation was borne from our experience in developing a mobile application that allows customers to unlock their POPStation parcel locker with their smartphone," he added.
WORKING WITH REGULATORS, ECONOMICS OF DRONE DELIVERY
Dr Leong said another key takeaway was the importance of developing the technology hand in hand with regulatory authorities - not just within Singapore but also those of other countries.
The Pulau Ubin drone trial "would not have happened without excellent public-private partnership," he wrote.
For instance, IMDA's PIXEL Labs team helped mitigate regulatory challenges on proving the drone's airworthiness, while SingPost searched for solutions so regulators would be satisfied with the flight's safety.
"One important hurdle was the need for a secure frequency for the navigation system. This was to enable the drone to travel beyond four kilometers out of the line of visible sight. Had we not been aligned with both aviation and telecommunication regulators concurrently, the project would have failed," Dr Leong said.
On the cost of the drone, he said it originally cost about S$1,500 with equipment that could pass regulatory requirements. Two months after the flight, Dr Leong said he saw the same drone at half the cost at a conference hosted by Alibaba Cloud.
"Moore’s Law is applying to drones and when drone costs go below S$100, and we have a 5G mobile network, the economics will work out, and this could be within the next three to five years," he said.
However, the use of drones for mail delivery is not necessarily suitable across Singapore. Dr Leong said: "Every now and then, I am asked at conferences when drone pizza delivery will become a reality. Singapore is a highly dense country and it is not conducive to fly drones within the city itself.
"Within dense cities such as ours, however, cyber security and airworthiness present clear challenges," he added.
Instead, what could work is an ecosystem of parcel lockers, self-driving cars and drones that are deployed according to their needs. Drones are best deployed to reaching remote locations, such as the offshore islands, said Dr Leong.
What's clear, he said, is that "progressive regulatory support" for both operators and startups will be critical to accelerate the development and commercialisation of drone delivery.