Singapore is striving to become a “smart nation” by embracing potentially disruptive technologies in all areas of daily life. These include driverless cars, delivery drones and autonomous air taxis, which could transform how people and goods move around this bustling city-state.

To explore how delivery drones could be used, Singapore turned to an experienced system integrator, Airbus. In February 2016, Airbus Helicopters signed a contract with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to test a drone parcel delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore (NUS). Demonstration of the Skyways system will begin in the first half of this year.

Rather than a demo of delivering fast food to homes in rural Australia, or online purchases to customers in the English countryside, Skyways is an integrated service that will involve drones flying overhead, autonomously shuttling packages between stations on the NUS campus. If successful, the system could be extended outside of the university to service ships anchored in the Port of Singapore.

“We decided to get into this because we wanted to explore how drones could be used to autonomously deliver items, especially in dense urban environments,” says Leo Jeoh, design office head at Airbus Helicopters Southeast Asia. “What that means is addressing regulatory, technological and operational requirements more from an aeronautical perspective than from a consumer perspective.”

A station-to-station delivery system has been designed for the NUS campus. A customer will take her package to a parcel station where she will enter its destination at a kiosk. A robotic arm will load the package onto the drone, which will launch and fly autonomously via an air corridor to the selected delivery station.

On landing, the package will drop onto the robot arm, which will place it in the appropriate parcel locker and the system will notify the recipient his package is ready for collection.

The Skyways drone is an octocopter, designed to carry a payload of 2-4 kg (4.4-8.8 lb.). Unusually for a small drone, critical systems are fully redundant. “In terms of safety, first and foremost is the redundancy we have in the system,” Jeoh says. If one system fails, the drone can continue to operate, “but until we build confidence, if there is an anomaly, we ask it to land at the nearest prepared station.”

For safety, the drone has multiple self-navigation systems. In addition to GPS, there is non-GPS precision localization system at each delivery station. Developed by Airbus Defense and Space, this corrects the drone’s positioning every time it approaches a delivery station.

Drones will launch and land autonomously, as parcels enter the system, but will be monitored from an operations center. “We have system operators who are there to make sure everything is clean and clear, until we can really gain the confidence of all stakeholders that we can do this fully autonomously,” Jeoh says. “If anything goes wrong, they can take emergency action.”

Airbus so far has built two prototypes of the Skyways drone, which have been flight tested in France and Singapore. The equipment for the trial service is now being installed at NUS. “Once we have enough data from that initial use case, if everything pans out, we would want to expand into other areas and more stations,” says Jeoh.