SINGAPORE: All drones operating in Singapore will have to be registered by the end of this year, while pilots of "large or capable drones" will have to be licensed.
"This will ensure that drone operators are made aware of their responsibilities and undertake to conduct their activities in a responsible manner," said Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min in Parliament on Monday (Jul 8).
Errant drone users may also face more severe penalties, he said. Currently, offenders can be jailed for up to 12 months and fined up to S$20,000.
Responding to questions filed by several Members of Parliament on the recent drone incursions near Changi Airport, Dr Lam said the police investigation is ongoing.
"We have learnt from the experiences of other airports that identifying the perpetrators can be challenging and will take time," he said.
"Meanwhile, our priority is to detect the drones promptly and prevent them from affecting air traffic and endangering public safety."
When asked about the profile of the perpetrators, Dr Lam said it was too early to tell if they were locals or foreigners, and asked for more time for investigations to be completed.
On Jun 24, bad weather and unauthorised drone activity near Changi Airport delayed 15 departing flights and three arriving flights, and caused another seven flights to be diverted.
The incident came just days after Changi Airport was forced to intermittently close one runway on Jun 18 due to drone sightings in the vicinity, affecting a total of 38 flights.
"There will be a few selfish and irresponsible persons who operate in flagrant disregard of the law, as well as the needs and concerns of others," Dr Lam said, noting that by and large, enthusiasts fly their drones responsibly.
Dr Lam said he has urged the unmanned aerial system advisory panel reviewing the regulations to "double up" on their efforts and bring forward the implementation timeline for compulsory registration.
While some have suggested banning drones after the recent incidents, Dr Lam stressed that the devices have many "beneficial uses" like teaching robotics and programming, as well as conducting deliveries and inspections.
Laws prohibiting the flying of drones within 5km of an aerodrome without a permit have been assessed as sufficient, he said.
"As with other forms of disruptive innovation, finding the right balance in terms of regulations will take time, particularly since drone technology continues to evolve quickly," he added.
Singapore's aviation authorities have also stepped up countermeasures at Changi Airport to detect and disrupt drones quicker, said Dr Lam.
"Our priority is to detect the drones promptly and prevent them from affecting air traffic and endangering public safety," he said.
"We stand ready to invest in and deploy additional capabilities to monitor and enforce the safety of our airspace."
Dr Lam acknowledged that detecting drones was "very challenging" due to their small size, stating that authorities needed to look into the modus operandi of drone operators.
For cooperative operators, Dr Lam said a proposed central flight management system - first announced in January - can monitor drones islandwide and allow authorities to check if they are operating under valid permits, and alert operators who breach regulations.
For uncooperative operators, Dr Lam said there needs to be a "risk-stratified approach" where certain areas like aerodromes will be given priority in terms of assessing where and what these illegal activities were.
"One example will be in Changi Aiport areas whereby we will have the capability to detect as well as disrupt some of these activities in the shortest possible time," he added.
Dr Lam noted that the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) has also been "judiciously managing" air traffic operations in Changi to ensure minimal disruptions to flight operations, through "risk-based approaches in terms of planning for departures and arrivals".
Even before the recent drone incursions near the airport, Dr Lam said Singapore authorities had run through their incident response following similar incidents last December which shut down London's Gatwick Airport for three days and affected about 1,000 flights.
"We have sort of worked out the SOP (standard operating procedures) and conducted tabletop exercises to run through operational plans so we can cope with similar incidents within our own airspace," he said.
Beyond that, Dr Lam said CAAS is also working with other agencies to tap on "screening assets" without compromising airport operations.
On Jun 28, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the Singapore Armed Forces was assisting in the incident response by deploying its counter-drone assets and offering advice on countermeasures available on the market.
"We have taken a multi-agency approach and deployed national resources towards ensuring the safety of Changi Airport operations," Dr Lam added.