As airports expand Singapore SMEs can tap opportunities
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: As airports expand, Singapore SMEs can tap opportunities

As airports expand Singapore SMEs can tap opportunities

AS global air passenger traffic recovers and airport operators expand capacity, there are opportunities for Singapore small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) -- and not just at home.

"To meet the rising passenger demand, airports today are increasingly looking to invest in innovative technology solutions and new infrastructures," said Anne Ho, director of advanced manufacturing at Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG).

In particular, there will be more demand for airfield technologies and ground support systems and equipment, she added.

Beyond Singapore, major airports around the world will also have to ramp up capacity -- and SMEs with a "good track record" can tap these opportunities.

"One way for Singapore aerospace companies to build up a track record is to service major aerospace corporates or airport operators," Ho suggested.

This will allow SMEs to develop a better understanding of the needs and quality expectations of large companies, and also access related overseas opportunities and networks.

Participation in trade shows is another way that local SMEs can reach "a more global and diverse audience", Ho said.

At this year's Singapore Airshow, for instance, EnterpriseSG and the Association of Aerospace Industries Singapore provided a platform for more than 25 local companies to showcase their products and solutions.

Some local SMEs are already flying high in Singapore's aerospace sector, and looking overseas for growth.

Flare Dynamics: Bringing drones into no-fly zones

Where planes fly, drones are generally banned from doing so. Yet, aerospace engineering firm Flare Dynamics has devised a way for drones to share space with aircraft.

In Singapore, drones or unmanned aircraft are prohibited from being flown within five kilometres (km) of any aerodrome -- that is, places with aircraft operations, whether in civil aviation such as Changi Airport or military air bases like Tengah Air Base.

This means that some 60 per cent of Singapore's airspace is off-limits to drones, estimated Flare Dynamics co-founder Lu Weiyao.

Yet, there are genuine use cases for drones close to aerodromes, he noted. These include aerial filming for advertisements and movies; monitoring construction progress; and facade inspections of tall buildings.

The company developed a proprietary tether system to allow drone usage in these cases in Singapore -- and is now aiming further, hoping to bring its product abroad.

This is due in part to the Republic's small market. Said co-founder Vincent Loh: "The Singapore market has reached a saturation point, and there are only so many customers here. Without going overseas, our growth is going to be capped."

To fund its expansion, Flare Dynamics is looking to raise external funding for the first time.

After an initial injection of S$2,000 when the company was founded in 2014, Flare Dynamics' growth has been bootstrapped through continued profitability, Lu said. "We are now actively seeking investment opportunities," he added. "The purpose of the funds is to expand overseas, as well as to further mature our technologies."

Tethered drone system

Flare Dynamics began as a manufacturer of custom drones. In 2016, it was engaged by airport operator Changi Airport Group to build a prototype drone tethering system.

"Changi Airport and CAAS (Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore) wanted to allow drones to fly close to the airport, and they were looking for a solution," Loh said.

A tethered drone system, which uses a flexible cord to anchor the drone to a fixed location, presented some benefits.

First, the tether can provide power to the drone from either an external battery pack or directly from mains electricity, bypassing the lower-capacity onboard battery.

This also improves its ability to provide a physical restraint. Said Lu: "In the event that your drone goes haywire, you can cut power from the ground and the drone will be immediately grounded."

Buoyed by the success of the prototype, the company in 2019 debuted Lifeline, a commercial tethered system that is compatible with drones made by China manufacturer DJI.

Each Lifeline system, which starts from US$6,500, allows drone operators to apply for flight permits within the five km no-fly zones.

Building the system to be compatible with DJI drones was a conscious choice, Loh said, as the Chinese company accounts for the majority of the global consumer drone market.

Separately, Flare Dynamics developed a micro-drone with a docking system, which Lu likens to robotic vacuum cleaners.

Coverage.Go, released in 2022, comprises a micro-drone, a docking station and bundled software that allows the drone to operate autonomously.

"The drone undocks from the dock, it flies the mission and it goes back to the dock for charging -- like a robotic vacuum cleaner, (it's) all autonomous," Lu explained.

Coverage.Go has been used in places such as construction sites, where the micro-drone looks for defects or detects safety and security issues.

Flare Dynamics also manufactures its own proprietary drones, which have been used by private and public organisations like the Singapore Armed Forces.

About 40 per cent of the company's annual revenue comes from services-related sales.

The other 60 per cent is from the manufacturing and maintenance of drones and drone systems. Lu and Loh declined to provide specific figures, citing commercial sensitivities.

Testing anti-drone systems

Apart from helping drones venture where they usually cannot, Flare Dynamics also helps to prevent them from doing so.

It provides "red-teaming" services -- carrying out simulated drone attacks to test anti-drone defences and uncover vulnerabilities.

Both publicly and privately run facilities in Singapore employ the company's red-teaming service, noted Lu, though he declined to name individual locations.

Flare Dynamics conducts about 3,000 such missions each year in Singapore.

Drone incursions into airport airspace could "seriously disrupt" a country's air transport infrastructure, Lu noted.

In 2019, there were several drone incursions into Changi Airport, resulting in at least one runway closure and multiple flight diversions.

By engaging red-teaming services like Flare Dynamics', public and private organisations can be reassured that their anti-drone systems are running properly, in the form of systems auditing, Loh said.

The company also provides facade inspection services, carried out by drones. Regulatory guidelines prescribe that the facades of buildings which are more than 20 years of age have to be inspected every seven years, with some exceptions.

Using a drone for the inspection is safer as it eliminates the need for workers to work at heights, Lu said.

Companies can also save costs as a single drone pilot can replace multiple workers, and there is no need for climbing equipment, he added.

Whenever a commercial aircraft arrives at or departs from an airport, it is served by a host of vehicle-mounted ground support equipment.

Such equipment is used to manoeuvre the aircraft into and out of its parking spot, load and unload baggage and freight, and power the plane's electrical systems when the engines are turned off.

At Changi Airport, some of these equipment are provided and maintained by homegrown aerospace company CW Aero Services.

These include pushback tractors, which are specialised tugs that move aircraft from their parking spot; ground power units that power an aircraft's air-conditioning system before it takes off; and air start units that kickstart aircraft engines.

"We also provide all the services and digital solutions related to these equipment," managing director Julien Valette told The Business Times.

CW Aero is a third-party service provider for the makers of the equipment -- selling, leasing and maintaining these products.

Sales from these operations account for about two-thirds of revenue, with the rest coming from its aircraft maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) business. Total revenue was S$5 million in 2023.

The company is profitable, and hopes to at least double its revenue in the next three to five years, primarily through overseas expansion.

"We still have some room for growth in Singapore, but it shouldn't be very heavy growth here," Valette said. "We have a lot more room for growth overseas."

The company embarked on internationalisation last year, expanding to the Philippines. It subsequently entered the Malaysian market earlier this year.

Overseas sales accounted for about 10 per cent of revenue in 2023.

This is expected to grow, forming around half of revenue in the coming three to five years.

For its overseas push, the company is focusing on selling and maintaining ground support equipment and some MRO services, in an asset-light model where it does not set up overseas facilities.

Instead, it has pared its overseas suite of MRO services to those that can be rendered from their clients' own spaces.

This approach means that the company cannot provide overseas clients with services such as R&D and prototyping but has significantly reduced capital expenditure requirements.

However, such services can still be done in Singapore and brought overseas, Valette said.

Custom-built test benches

CW Aero began as the aerospace business arm of logistics and procurement firm CW Singapore in the 1990s.

At the time, its MRO business mainly involved the sale of specialised tools and equipment used in aircraft maintenance. Valette's team noticed that some MRO clients were working with older equipment -- up to 30 years old -- that intermittently broke down. Back then, there were no local repair services for some of these.

"The only alternative was to buy new, very expensive equipment from overseas," he said. "But we believed that we would be able to maintain and retrofit the existing equipment, and adapt more quickly to what the customers needed."

This meant that their clients could save costs, as they did not have to purchase new equipment and pay high shipping fees.

"In terms of speed of support, because we are here locally, we can react more quickly too," Valette said.

CW Aero was spun off in 2017 to focus on serving this need and "moving up the value chain". By providing such services, it could go beyond being just a reseller of equipment and tools.

The company had also developed a niche in designing and building custom "test benches", which are specialised machines that test aircraft components.

"In an aircraft, most of the components are removed at some point and tested to make sure they work correctly," Valette said.

Such components include actuators, which are devices that convert one form of energy into another. Electricity, for instance, can be converted into pressure, temperature or mechanical movements in an aircraft through the use of actuators.

CW Aero's custom test benches, which are built and maintained locally, allow customers to save on importing such equipment from overseas, which can be more expensive, Valette said.

"When we design and build our own equipment, the sales volume may be less, but actually the (profit) margin is much higher," he added.

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.