Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have taken to new heights in recent years as they underwent rapid developments for various applications across different business verticals in the commercial world. While UAVs do not require pilots on board during operations and can even fly autonomously based on pre-programmed flight plans, a lot of engineering work and manhours have gone into their development to ensure that they carry out their mission safely and effectively. Read on about two UAV solutions developed by ST Engineering’s Aerospace sector, and the team who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes from conceptualisation to commercialisation.
Smarter and Safer Aircraft Inspections Through an Iterative Approach
Ng Kow Leong, Principal Engineer, Aerospace is the Technical Manager for DroScan, a solution that applies smart drone technologies and data analytics to carry out visual inspection of the exterior of an aircraft prior to maintenance work or redelivery. By using drones to physically carry out general visual inspections, DroScan eliminates the need to set up bulky ground equipment such as boom-lifts and workstands for aircraft engineers to climb up and down during manual inspection. Such a new robotic process promises to bring about higher efficiency while greatly enhancing workplace safety at the same time.
The concept may sound simple but DroScan had to undergo five major iterations and numerous minor improvements in the initial product development stage before it is ready for commercialisation. Among the many criteria that the solution needs to meet is that it should be easy and safe to use, quick to set up and be able to carry out aircraft inspection more efficiently than the manual process.
Adding to the challenge was the fact that the team had difficulties finding serviceable aircraft for development testing activities given the downtime involved. The team initially improvised by using a smaller private jet aircraft. This was, however, not ideal as they were unable to effectively tailor their solution to specifically meet the needs in inspecting a larger-sized commercial aircraft. It was only through persistence and a stroke of luck that they obtained the support of ITE College Central to use their training aircraft to test DroScan. This is one of the many instances in which ST Engineering leverages its extensive industry network to facilitate or accelerate its research and development work.
Hence, by combining ST Engineering’s expertise in aircraft inspection and maintenance, industry networks and engineering skills, Kow Leong and team were ready to go to market with DroScan after working on the solution for 24 months. Air New Zealand (together with SASCO as the MRO provider) became the first potential customer to test out DroScan, which continues to be perfected so that it can serve as a robust unmanned tool for aircraft maintenance inspection.
Leveraging Collaborations to Enable Urban Living
DroNet is another unmanned solution that recently went into operational trials after the inception of the project in 2017. Calvin Tan, Assistant Principal Engineer, Aerospace, is the Technical Lead for the end-to-end solution that applies advanced unmanned technologies such as drones through a network system to carry out on-demand tasks or services in an urban environment. When equipped with networking, video analytics and data-sharing technologies, DroNet can be used in various applications such as perimeter security, asset inspection and lightweight deliveries.
Like any innovation, even if incremental, there were numerous technical challenges that Calvin and his team had to overcome. Calvin recalled one of the issues the team faced in the early developmental stage was incorporating 4G connectivity. As a key selling point is the use of 4G network to ensure consistent connectivity between the drone and control station during operation, the challenge faced when incorporating 4G network technology initially threatened to derail the DroNet project. The team eventually resolved the problem by tapping on the resources and expertise of other colleagues within the engineering department of ST Engineering’s Aerospace sector.
Working closely among themselves within the company is, however, not sufficient in making the solution work. As DroNet is meant to be an enabler in urban living by addressing the challenges that comes with rapid urbanisation, understanding what these challenges are and figuring how DroNet can help end users in the most efficient and safe manner is an important part of Calvin’s work. This meant numerous meetings and brainstorming with potential end users who can benefit from applying unmanned solutions in their operational environment. Many a times, Calvin and his team also had to put themselves in the shoes of these end users as the latter may not be familiar with unmanned technologies and their possibilities.
The first-ever Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) trial conducted at a reservoir for PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency, in February 2019 is one example of the team working closely together with a potential customer to explore use cases. The trial aims to help all the stakeholders better understand how DroNet can be used to strengthen PUB’s operational resilience and the security of their key assets and infrastructure in its goal to achieve a smart water management system.
Apart from potential use cases, safety is the other aspect that Calvin and his team focused a lot on. As Calvin shared, while it is crucial that the solution goes to market ahead of their competitors, it is just as important that they ensure whatever solution they develop do not compromise the safety of its users and the public in any way. The fact that ST Engineering is the first company in Singapore to have obtained an authorisation from the national aviation authority for BVLOS operations attests to the success that Calvin and his team had in advancing UAS applications in a safe and robust way.
From Conceptualisation to Commercialisation
With so many new ideas being explored each day, and new products being developed at various stages, it is little wonder that ST Engineering’s engineers are constantly hard at work behind the scenes. While it can take months or years of hard work before an idea can come to fruition, our engineers are driven by the satisfaction and pride they feel as their solutions gradually take shape.
To find out more about our UAS solutions, click here.