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Singapore military officials embrace drone aircraft

The Asian city-state may be only a fraction of the size of Rhode Island, but it's hoping that a stepped-up focus on unmanned vehicles will pay off big for its defense.

WASHINGTON--Singapore may not occupy much more than a tiny dot on the world map, but it's counting on drones and other remote-controlled vehicles to make its military mighty.

As one of the world's busiest sea ports, the Asian city-state's "survival and prosperity depends on national security," Tan Peng Yam, deputy chief executive of the country's Defense Science &Technology Agency, told attendees at the first day of the annual North America symposium put on here by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Singapore recently added this Israeli-made UAV to its Air Force fleet. Government of Singapore

Because a third of the world's trade--including 90 percent of China's trade and 80 percent of Japan's trade--flows through the bordering Straits of Malacca, the country of about 4.5 million people could find itself a "lucrative terrorist target," Yam said.

That's where the robotic vehicles come in. Since the late 1970s, shortly after the British withdrew from the colonial outpost, Singapore's military has been testing out unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in an attempt to make up for its limited human resources. They've now become "indispensable" for tackling the dreaded four d's of military missions--"the dull, dirty, dangerous and demanding" ones, that is, Yam said.

Earlier this year, the Singapore government unveiled plans to revamp its Air Force organization into five commands--including a new one devoted solely to building up UAV "expertise and capabilities." In late May, the Air Force added to its lineup Israeli-made Hermes 450 UAVs, which are designed for surveillance and have also been used by the British government and by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The country is also trying to get "people who never worked in defense before" interested in the robots, Yam said. The government announced a contest in January to build the best "urban warrior" robot, backed by a $1 million cash prize. The idea is for teams to devise an unmanned ground vehicle that's the swiftest at completing a sequence of tasks--climbing stairs, navigating pavement, moving along corridors, entering rooms and even operating elevators.

A country whose area is less than a quarter of Rhode Island's does encounter some unique challenges in its UAV rollout, though. "If a UAV goes out of control," Yam said, "it will go into our neighboring countries." (To help get around the skimpy-airspace problem, the government has taken to using a simulator.)