Last December, Amazon.com Inc. created a buzz by releasing a video of a drone delivering a package to a customer’s home. If Amazon launches its Prime Air service as planned in 2015, we could soon see unmanned aircraft whizzing through the skies to deliver purchases in as little as half an hour.
Not wanting to be left behind, Google Inc. bought a drone maker in April and released its own delivery video late last month.
Interest in drone technology is rising fast, raising the possibility that miniature copters will be a common sight in the near future, carrying out such tasks as delivery, surveillance or inspection of hard-to-access infrastructure.
“Up until recently, people might have thought that drones were just for military use and had nothing to do with their daily lives,” but it’s likely that will change in the next decade, said Kenzo Nonami, a renowned drone engineer who is president of Chiba-based Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd.
Nonami, 65, said Japan is behind China, France and the United States in drone development and thinks the government, private sector and academia should collaborate to catch up.
“Japan may have been focused too much on humanoid robots and overlooked the drones,” while other countries were developing them for military purposes, he said.
Hobbyists can easily purchase drones online these days for under ¥100,000, but it is hard to find any Japanese makers in a market dominated by such companies as China-based DJI Innovations and France-based Parrot.
Yet Japan is getting ready to play catch-up, he said.
About 80 Japanese firms set up the Mini Surveyor Consortium in 2012 to help the Japanese drone market grow and promote drones equipped with an autonomous control technology developed by Nonami, who is also a professor at the Graduate School of Engineering at Chiba University.
The consortium is gearing up to produce 100 to 200 drones for sale this fall in Japan.
Nonami emphasized that this is no time for Japanese players to be competing against each other, given Japan’s trailing position in the industry.
“(Promotion of Japanese drones) should not be left to just one company or one university. We must make an all-Japan effort,” he said.
Nonami said his technology allows drones to fly autonomously without the need for GPS data. This is achieved by giving drones a laser scanner so they can generate maps as they fly. These drones can thus fly accurately within tunnels or under bridges, where GPS signals don’t reach. This will give them a valuable capability at a time when the government is promoting the use of drones for infrastructure inspection.
Nonami’s Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory makes several types of copters, which range from 80 to 150 cm in length and weigh 2 to 3 kg.
While Japan is behind, there is plenty of time to catch up. The Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International, the world’s largest nonprofit drone promotion organization, said the U.S. drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and create an economic impact worth $80 billion from 2015 to 2025.
Nonami said it will still take years for the drone market to really grow, saying onboard computers must be improved and made faster for the gadgets to master safe autonomous flight.
“It needs to have an artificial intelligence capable of ordering the vehicle to detect trouble and land safely by itself if something happens,” otherwise, it will be dangerous to fly over densely populated cities, said Nonami.
In addition, drones may face legal issues in Japan, too. Article 207 of the civil law states: “Ownership in land shall extend to above and below the surface of the land, subject to the restrictions prescribed by laws and regulations.”
As things stand, it’s illegal to use drones to make deliveries and fly around cities, not only because of Article 207, but also because the traffic law prohibits flying over roads without special permission, lawyer Masahiro Kobayashi said.
Thus, the law will have to be changed to achieve the future envisioned by the drone makers, he said.
If they can clear this legal hurdle, Nonami said, drones may once again change the landscape of the nation’s retail industry, just like Amazon showed in its video.
Using huge trucks to deliver packages under the current distribution system isn’t necessarily efficient, because “We have to use fuel to run vehicles that weigh many times more than the packages,” he said.
But battery-powered drones weighing just 2 to 3 kg can carry payloads of up to 10 kg, he said, adding they may soon be able to handle packages as heavy as 20 or 30 kg.
Nonami said aerial vehicles can also be used for surveillance purposes. For instance, if a homeowner is stranded at his or her place of work by a major earthquake, a smartphone could be used to launch a drone to see if the person’s house, family and neighbors are safe.
However, the same machines could also be used to peer into people’s bedrooms and backyards, or follow them around and attack them, raising issues of privacy and security.
This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years.