Autonomous drones could’ve helped contain riots in Singapore and Thailand



In the past few weeks, the world had its eyes on Southeast Asia as Thailand and Singapore were engulfed in riots. In Thailand, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters demanded the resignation of the Thai Prime Minister. In Singapore, foreign workers flipped over vehicles in anger over an Indian National who was killed by a bus. The crowd swelled to 400 at one point.

The mayhem wasn’t restricted to the streets. Social media was caught in a frenzy, spreading rumors involving the riots which turned out to be false. Video footages of the events went viral.

Amidst the noise however, a set of stunning videos surfaced online, giving a top-down view of the riots in Thailand. The footage was taken by an autonomous drone, which buzzed like a bee as it hovered over the streets of Bangkok.

A question naturally arises: could autonomous aerial drones, which maneuver on its own based on a set of programmable instructions given beforehand, have mitigated the riots that occurred in Thailand and Singapore?

More than killing machines

In recent years, drones have been occupying the airwaves. The United States has used them to hunt down terrorists in Central Asia, in the process angering denizens for violating national sovereignty and killing innocents along with military targets.

But it’s only recently that robots have been dominating the news for more benign purposes, such as delivering parcels, conducting surveillance, and driving cars. While these machines are still in the trial stages, there’s a real chance that they could become as common as delivery vans by the end of the decade.

They could even be utilized by police forces and firefighters, and several Asian companies are figuring that out. One of them is Garuda Robotics, a Singapore-based startup that is engaging potential customers for live trials in 2014 (the company won Tech in Asia’s Startup Arena contest in Jakarta this year).

Pulkit Jaiswal, the company’s 20-year-old founder, believes drones can act as advance scouts that provide intelligence to first responders before they arrive on the scene.

These machines can be mounted onto a fire truck and automatically deploy when the vehicle is en route to the emergency site. They could then feed live data back to the vehicle and central command, allowing firefighters to adjust their plans and prepare themselves for what is to come. Pulkit adds:

If it turns out that entering the scene now looks like pure suicide, then the firefighters can make the call to hold and wait for backup.

Since every second counts, first responders are forced to make snap decisions. Additional intelligence from the drones can complement human intuition, boost confidence, reduce human error, and save lives.

The utility of these drones was made pertinent in the riot in Singapore’s Little India. Rescue workers at the scene were quickly overwhelmed by the angry mob, which set three police cars and an ambulance ablaze. By the time the riot police were sent in, 14 police and civil defense officers, along with four unidentified individuals, were injured.

It could’ve been worse. If not for a few good Samaritans, people may have died.

Now, suppose the Singapore’s civil defense and police forces possess an aerial drones fleet. Instead of sending in first responders to the scene blind, these robots could be deployed ahead to figure out what’s going on.

If things are chaotic, the drones could assess the situation to be too dangerous for the officers to proceed. The riot police could then be deployed alongside the ambulances, preventing injuries and tens of thousands of dollars in damages to rescue vehicles.

Having robots work alongside firefighters isn’t unprecedented. In California, drones were instrumental in helping the fire department contain a massive forest fire, warning them about a flare-up that the commanders would otherwise not immediately see.

Besides feeding early intelligence, drones are crucial in providing accurate data that can help the authorities and the public do a proper post-mortem, says Pulkit.

With drones, the authorities would be able to properly understand the full story about what happened. The public would then receive better information, and reduce a lot of the keyboard warfare that’s happening.

The bird’s eye view gives investigators an extra vantage points to assess the spark that caused the flame, and better figure out the causes and effects of an incident.

While it won’t totally kill off falsehoods, it does blunt the effect of “lurkers”, which Pulkit describes as bystanders at ground zero who post videos or commentaries online along with their own extrapolations, which may turn out to be false. With social media, these mistruths will spread easily and cause widespread confusion.

More than hardware

It’s tempting to see drones merely as flying machines. But in reality they’re hardware and software packages connected to a cloud server. So instead of just providing raw data, they can interpret them.

Pulkit says that is is possible to add facial recognition technology to drone software to enhance surveillance, making it easier for the police to trace suspicious individuals who are wanted for a crime. In the case of riots, it could speed up investigations.

It’ll be easier to identify for example, which individuals were causing destruction and which were defusing the situation. It’s possible that some of these helpful individuals might have be arrested along with the rioters.

Such powers come with the potential for abuse, however, given its potential for use in tracking political dissidents or collecting data from civilians without permission. The authorities will have to put checks in place to assuage citizens and ensure no abuse takes place, although Singapore is not exactly noted for its transparency.

Like all technology, drones are a mixed bag in terms of social benefits and costs. But if deployed by the right hands, it could help a lot of people.

Pulkit notes that there are around 3,000 fires in Singapore alone each year. A network of drones, which could fly around the city even when its citizens are asleep, can prevent incidents from becoming life-threatening.

In Asia, especially Singapore and China, regulations surround drone flight are friendly, which makes these countries attractive testbeds for the technology.

Eventually, Singapore might even become a leading adoptor of drones on a per capita basis.

(Image credit: Ed Schipul)

(Editing by Josh Horwitz)

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