How a Singapore tourism destination became a 5G and automation testbed

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Michael Ma, Assistant Chief Executive, Sentosa Development Corporation.

Sentosa Island beckons visitors with its glistening beaches, thrilling roller coaster rides, and the majestic undersea world in its aquarium. Now, it has a new draw for holidaymakers - technology.

The tourism hub is now the testbed of 5G inventions across construction and hygiene services. It has also found a permanent spot on its shores for emerging technologies such as virtual reality and renewable energy sources.

Michael Ma, Assistant Chief Executive, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) shares how the island is reimagining itself as the home of exciting tech developments.

5G and automation at work

Sentosa tests promising public sector uses of 5G before they are adopted on Singapore’s mainland, Ma says. 5G networks mean faster connection speeds, enabling autonomous robots to assist in building and cleaning services.

The island’s construction sites are testing robots with 3D laser scanners to help keep track of building progress. 5G also enables flying drones to share live video feeds, so construction staff can inspect the building site from above, a press release explained.

These autonomous services “typically require a large amount of data to be transmitted in real-time”, said Tan Kee Wee, Programme Director of the Digitalisation department in Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority. This is something that “5G would be able to support”, he explained.

Remote-controlled road-sweeping vehicles are moving across Sentosa in a trial by Singapore’s National Environment Agency. The agency is testing whether off-site staff can safely navigate the vehicle through live camera feeds of the vehicle’s surroundings.

Renewable energy and zero-waste fuel

Sentosa is adopting technology to improve its environmental sustainability, partly out of self-preservation. “The threat of climate change is disproportionately affecting small island destinations like ours”, Ma admits.

The island collects solar and tidal energy in unused spaces around the island as renewable sources of power. It is also looking to create a circular economy on the island, where 100 per cent of waste products are reused.

For example, the island takes tree branches and plant parts that are no longer needed and turns them into a low-emission fuel for generating electricity. These renewable energy sources have the potential to offset the emissions of approximately 300,000 hotel room nights, according to Sentosa’s sustainability plans.

Transport around the island is another focus for sustainability efforts. Sentosa aims to power 100 per cent of its public transport by electricity by 2025, Ma highlights. All Sentosa caparks will also enable electric vehicle charging by 2030.

Enabling smart tourism

Technology was an important tool for the island when Covid-19 struck. Sentosa adopted virtual tours and attractions to bring its attractions to visitors during Singapore’s circuit breaker period, Ma explains.

It rolled out a virtual recreation of Sentosa on the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Players kicked back at beach bars, relaxed in recreations of the island’s spa hotels, and strolled along nature trails in the game. A gamified virtual tour where players find hidden clues along the island’s nature parks is another attraction that Ma highlights.

When visitors could return to the island in person, technology ensured that visitors kept within safe distancing guidelines. Sentosa provided live information on crowd levels at beaches, bus stations, and other potentially busy areas.

The island shares this information with publicly accessible websites run by Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and National Parks Board, he explains. This helps visitors to identify areas with larger crowds, so that they can avoid queues and keep apart safely.

“The pandemic has put the use of technology squarely in the limelight,” Ma emphasises. While technology has long been key to engaging guests and creating great experiences, the pandemic “validated the importance” of Sentosa’s tech journey, he continues.

Technology can be the key to creating improved citizen experiences and reducing the workload faced by staff. Sentosa is a good example of how a tourism destination can be the home of tech innovations, until they are adopted across entire governments and nations.