With Singapore’s limited airspace and dense population, the need for an aerial traffic management system to allow drones to fly safely has become more urgent. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) are studying ways to allow hundreds of UAVs to fly efficiently and safely at any one time.

NTU said that the aim is to develop a traffic management system for UAVs consisting designated air-lanes and blocks, similar to how cars on the roads have traffic lights and lanes. Advanced technologies that will be developed include smart and safe routing, detect- and-avoid systems, and traffic management to coordinate air traffic.

Named Traffic Management of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, this initiative is spearheaded by NTU’s Air Traffic Management Research Institute (ATMRI).

ATMRI is a joint research centre by NTU and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). It aims to research and develop air traffic management solutions for Singapore and the Asia Pacific region, including UAV traffic management which is one of its key programmes.

Leading the research programme are NTU Professor Low Kin Huat, an expert in robotics and UAVs from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said it is important to develop a traffic management solution for UAVs tailored to actual challenges faced by Singapore given the huge growth of UAV traffic expected over the next decade.

Currently, restricted airspace and zones where UAV operations are prohibited have already been identified, such as near airports and military facilities.

The researchers will test out several concepts, such as geofencing. The idea is to set up virtual fences where UAVs can be automatically routed around a restricted geographical location such as the airport.

The university explained that another important research area will be collision detection. UAVs will need to have sensors that enable detection and avoidance of collision with another UAV. This will allow UAVs to follow a set of actions to avoid any mid-air incidents, such as flying above, below, or around other UAVs.

The multidisciplinary research initiative will bring together faculty and researchers from different fields in NTU, from aerospace engineering and air traffic management to robotics and electronic engineering.

Spanning a period of four years, the project which will also tap on industry experts, is expected to complete its initial phase of conceptual design and software simulation by end 2017.

This is followed by actual test bedding of solutions using UAVs developed by NTU that can be used for relevant applications in 2018.