By NEWLEY PURNELL
SINGAPORE—Half a dozen men gathered around a workbench in a government building one morning asTack Wai Wong, an engineering expert clad in a crisp white shirt and gray trousers, took his place at the front of the table.
“Once upon a time all of this was military technology,” said Mr. Wong, 50 years old, as he ran his fingers along the rotors of one of several small unmanned aerial vehicles spread out before him. “Now you can make drones yourself.”
The workshop was aimed at teaching people in this tightly controlled city-state how to fly drones safely—and maybe even hatch ideas for commercial applications.
The U.S. is a hotbed for commercial drone startups, and the Federal Aviation Administration in February proposed long-awaited rules for drones that will likely make their use even more widespread in the country.
But drone startups are increasingly taking flight across Asia. They are using the crafts to locate faulty solar panels in Singapore, prospect land in the Philippines, map plantations in Thailand and more. While companies also use such applications in other parts of the world, entrepreneurs here are working with cooperative governments in some places, taking advantage of lax regulations in others, and providing services that appeal to local markets in new ways.
Asia is seeing a “proliferation of companies coming out thinking creatively and informatively about how [drone] technology can be developed,” said Michael Perry, a spokesman for Shenzhen-based SZ DJI Technology Co., the world’s top consumer drone maker by revenue. “Some are being really clever in finding interesting new angles.”
DJI itself has helped launch the global drone craze, selling tens of thousands of its popular Phantom crafts, the roughly $1,000 quadcopters that can be equipped with high-definition cameras.
U.S.-based Piper Jaffray Investment Research said in a report in June that most global spending on drones now goes to military applications. Little data exists on commercial drone startups in Asia, but the group reckons that the world-wide commercial drone industry, which amounted to between $600 million and $700 million last year, will expand rapidly and could be worth several billion dollars annually by 2020. A significant portion of the industry’s growth will come from outside the U.S., experts said. DJI is already estimated to account for roughly half of the global consumer market for drones, Piper Jaffray said.
While the FAA’s new drone rules help provide clarity to U.S. drone businesses that have operated in a legal gray area for years, entrepreneurs in Singapore say the government’s straightforward regulatory framework has allowed them to experiment within legal bounds. Commercial drones can be flown in parts of the city-state provided that pilots obtain permits, with additional permissions needed for certain activities. The government last month began offering a streamlined online submission tool, with permits often granted within two weeks. A government spokeswoman says it has already approved several dozen permits using the new scheme.
A Singapore startup called Avetics uses six-bladed drones for aerial photography and 3-D mapping. The company conducted more than 100 projects last year and is seeing increasing demand this year, according to founder Weiliang Zhang, a 28-year-old Singaporean.
In one recent project, Avetics used a drone to inspect an approximately 400-foot-high flare tip—a tower used to burn off gas—for Royal Dutch Shell PLC in Singapore.
Avetics has also assessed the volumes of sand piles for a Belgian dredging firm, mapped agarwood plantations in Thailand and surveyed coastal terrain in Vietnam. While such projects are common in the West, Mr. Zhang said they seem to be less frequently undertaken in Southeast Asia.