Singapore has successfully performed the world's first delivery of mail by drone, conducting a test flight carrying a letter and a parcel with a T-shirt, which crossing from one island to another.
While there have been other similar postal-delivery-by-drone trials conducted by DHL in Germany, Swiss Post in Switzerland and the Posti Group in Finland, Singapore Post (SingPost) claims that this is the first time that an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has been used for point-to-point recipient-authenticated mail delivery.
The drone took off from Lorong Halus, a wetland area on the eastern bank of Serangoon Reservoir on mainland Singapore, and flew 2km to the delivery location within just five minutes across open water to Pulau Ubin, one of Singapore's 60 offshore islands, preserved as a rural area of beauty.
The SingPost Alpha Drone
The SingPost Alpha Drone was built by SingPost in collaboration with IDA Labs, the research arm of the government agency Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA).
It can carry a payload weighing up to 500g and travel a maximum distance of 2.3km, but it cannot fly any higher than 45m, which is far below the maximum height of 400m established by civil aviation authorities in Europe and the US.
The drone uses technology from the open source Pixhawk Steadidrone platform together with a new experimental delivery platform developed by SingPost and tied to a mobile app.
"This drone technology is tailored for use in dense urban landscapes. It is energy-efficient and reduces carbon footprint as it is fully battery-operated," said Dr Bernard Leong, head of digital services at SingPost.
"We have developed a customised solution app equipped with security features and authentication functions to ensure that mail and packages are delivered to the intended recipient. Through this app, users will be able to select their preferred delivery date and time to suit their schedules."
Still a way to go before drone deliveries take off
Drone delivery might sound very exciting, but realistically even Singapore, which is known for its early adoption of emerging technologies, admits that it will be some time before UAVs become a regular sight in the sky.
"Although it will be a while before it is viable for drone mail delivery to take off in Singapore, taking into consideration commercial and safety factors; this first step by SingPost and IDA demonstrates what Singapore is trying out with our Smart Nation vision – to have the various parts of our ecosystem collaborate, experiment with new ways of doing things, and in the process, literally aim for the sky with new technology," said Jacqueline Poh, managing director of IDA.
Singapore allows anyone to fly drones within their line of sight, but commercial users must obtain an operator permit and an activity permit, following the passing of the Unmanned Aircraft (Public Safety and Security) Bill in August. Even recreational users are required to apply for an activity permit if they choose to fly the UAV outdoors, but no permit is required if the drone is flown indoors or in an area not affecting the general public.
The Singapore government is keen to push the use of drones in order to ease manpower constraints in the country. In February, local restaurant chain Timbre Group made international news for trialling drone waiters to help deliver food from its kitchens.