Checks at Woodlands, Tuas could go hi-tech next year

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Robotic arms, biometric scanners and facial detection technology may greet drivers at the Tuas and Woodlands checkpoints as early as next year - if an ongoing trial proves successful.

This new system provides tighter security and frees up officers to focus on more critical tasks, the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) said yesterday.

For example, officers can focus their checks on travellers posing higher risks, a spokesman added, noting that biometrics technology is also a more reliable way to verify identities.

The new model, known as the automated passenger in-car clearance system (Apics), is part of ICA's move towards self-clearance using biometrics.

If the test is successful, Singapore could be the first country to implement a comprehensive in-car clearance system, the authorities said.

Under Apics, drivers will have to step out of their cars to manually scan the passports of everyone in the vehicle.

Motorists then drive into a clearance zone to have their identities verified.

A machine extends robotic arms with devices that travellers use to scan their fingerprints and take photographs of themselves.

The car is deemed to be cleared when travellers complete the checks and return the devices to the machine.

The trial, which started in July, is scheduled to end by next June, depending on the amount of data collected.

More changes to the system are expected before it is rolled out, said Mr Cheng Wee Kiang, a senior assistant director at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), who is part of the team developing Apics with ICA.

The trial's success will be judged by Apics' ability to free up officers to be redeployed and its user-friendliness, Mr Cheng said.

But there are restrictions to biometrics that cannot be resolved currently, added Mr Cheng, who reports to the Office of the Chief Science and Technology Officer at the MHA.

"There will be exceptions," he said.

Officers will be on standby to clear travellers such as children, whose fingerprints are not fully formed yet.

Mr Cheng said Apics will aim to clear 25 cars an hour, a specification spelt out in tender documents in 2015.

This target, however, does not factor in cases such as contraband items and higher-risk travellers, which can lengthen inspection times.

Mr Cheng expects delays when the system is rolled out.

"As with new technologies, it takes a bit of time to get used to," he said. "It is the first time that we are developing such a system, so we do not have a lot of references. We are still exploring... and trying to cover as much as possible with the trial."