Rise of the drones

Rise of the drones
: Mr Ronald Yong, a business development manager, operating one of his multi-rotor copters on an open field in Tuas South Avenue 1 on 8 January 2014.

For $1,500, remote-control (RC) fans here can buy a mini-helicopter that can fly as high as 1km, go on autopilot and take pictures or film videos in the air.

As prices continue to fall, these drones are expected to become a more common sight here. And not just among hobbyists, but also commercial firms using them to make movies or wedding videos or to inspect tall buildings.

Yet given Singapore's dense urban landscape, the increasing use of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is raising concerns.

A battery-powered drone can weigh more than 10kg and could cause serious injury if it crashes. And its potential as a tool to spy on people means there are privacy issues as well.

The aviation authorities around the world, including in Singapore, are working on fresh regulations to deal with the proliferation of private mini-drones.

Getting cheaper

The use of UAVs has long been explored by militaries, and has attracted plenty of controversy over their role in missile strikes and surveillance. But these army drones are usually large, sophisticated and very expensive.

Interest in mini-helicopter drones among hobbyists, however, started to grow after a four-rotor model, weighing less than 500g and which could be controlled by a smartphone, hit stores in 2010. The $449 Parrot AR Drone, developed by a French company, came with a camera that could stream videos.

Since then, the number of multi-rotor copter models has grown, with Chinese manufacturers jumping on a bandwagon previously dominated by a handful of American and European firms, said Mr P.K. Lee, owner of Rotor Hobby in Kreta Ayer.

Advances in technology have made drones easier to handle and have pushed prices down - a key reason behind their increasing popularity here.

Mr Frederick Yong, manager of Singapore Hobby Supplies, said prices are now half what they were five to six years ago.

A palm-sized model can cost less than $100, said Mr Liew Hui Sing, course manager for Singapore Polytechnic's diploma in aeronautical engineering. Those with autopilot functions and camera mounts sell for around $1,500.

More sophisticated commercial models can cost over $10,000 - still relatively more affordable when compared to the $4,000 to $5,000 it costs to rent a helicopter for less than an hour.

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