Meet the robots and drones helping to keep Singapore safe

By Shirley Tay

Interview with Phua Hooi Boon, Senior Director (Technology and Logistics Policy Division), Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore.

The 1987 film Robocop follows the story of a determined robot police officer tracking down a notorious criminal group in crime-rampant Detroit. Fast forward 30 years, Singapore is rolling out its very own fleet of robots and drones that assist Home Team officers in their work.

The city is the second safest in the world according to Statista, but it’s facing a shrinking workforce and growing, complex security threats. “The challenges make it clear that we cannot operate at business-as-usual,” says Phua Hooi Boon, Senior Director (Technology and Logistics Policy Division) of Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

GovInsider spoke to Phua to find out more about how technology is keeping Singapore safe.

Robots and drones to the rescue

During the nationwide circuit breaker, the Singapore Police Force used robots to patrol some quarantine facilities, Phua says. They can navigate autonomously, broadcast audio recordings, and carry cameras that transmit a 360-degree livestream back to the police command post.

The city’s also got its eyes in the sky. The Singapore Civil Defence Force is deploying drones to large scale incidents, such as fires, to provide “real-time aerial video transmission of the area”. This helps officers better understand the situation and allocate resources accordingly.
Image from Singapore Prison Service

Prisons have not been left out of the tech push. The Singapore Prison Service is using smart cameras and video analytics to monitor inmates’ activities and movement, he says.

This helps officers detect fights and medical emergencies, and relieves them from the mundane task of monitoring camera footage. This way, they can focus on inmates’ rehabilitation - “important, personalised work that no machine can do effectively as yet”.

The Singapore Prison Service will also pilot video analytics and machine learning at its Selarang Park Complex, Phua says. This will allow for “active remote surveillance” of prison cells and enhance the safety of inmates.

Ethical, secure technology

As more tech tools are rolled out, “the capabilities of some technologies; what they can do, can sometimes exceed what our people are comfortable with,” Phua acknowledges. “At the root of this is public trust, and it is critical that this trust is not broken.”

It’s carefully evaluating the risks of AI, he shares. The Home Team already uses AI in a variety of ways, with the Singapore Civil Defence Force building a prototype of an AI-powered speech recognition tool to assist 995 emergency-call takers.

The system automatically transcribes what the caller says, enabling the operator to focus on clarifying information, dispatching resources, and providing assistance in life-threatening situations. This is crucial as the Singapore Civil Defence Force receives close to 200,000 calls a year, Phua says.

This is an example of a “Human-in-the-Loop system”, he shares. AI is used to support human operators, not make decisions on behalf of the operator.

MHA also regulates the collection, storage, and use of personal data that have been collected as part of the Home Team’s operations. It has implemented tools to monitor key databases and ICT systems to prevent data breaches, Phua says.

Protecting the homeground

Phua Hooi Boon, Senior Director (Technology and Logistics Policy Division) of Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs. Image from Ministry of Home Affairs.

The Home Team’s operating environment is becoming more complex, says Phua. Criminals are exploiting emerging technologies, making it more challenging to investigate and prosecute traditional crimes.

In June 2019, unauthorised drones intruded Singapore’s airspace and disrupted Changi Airport’s operations for 10 hours. 37 scheduled flights were delayed, reported The Straits Times.

The Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) is prototyping a vehicle that can detect drones at a “good standoff distance”, allowing for “adequate time” to intercept errant drones, he says.

These changing and complex threats require engineers to understand the operating environment of officers, and officers to understand how to use technology seamlessly, Phua says.

MHA has launched the Ops-Tech Career track to build up a cadre of uniformed officers “grounded in operational experience and proficient in technology”. These officers have a structured career pathway that includes ops-tech postings within their respective Home Team Departments; secondment opportunities to HTX; and chances for further studies in technical realms.

The agency has also expanded its competency framework to include technology literacy, data analytics and cybersecurity, he says.

While Singapore doesn’t have a determined humanoid robot like in Robocop, it is making substantial leaps with its fleet of robots and drones. May it continue to be one of the safest cities to live, work and play in.