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Shikoku taps drones to aid isolated islands

Chunichi Shimbun

A drone built by a Nagoya-based company has completed a trial run to see if unmanned aircraft can be used to transport goods from Kagawa Prefecture to an island in the Seto Inland Sea.

“In the long run, we would like to use drones to transport emergency medical supplies and daily items. This can reduce the inconvenience of living on an isolated island,” said one of the sponsors who plan to start a related business next spring.

“3, 2, 1, Go!”

The toylike aircraft took off from Takamatsu port and flew north into the blue sky, vanishing into Shikoku’s horizon. Twenty minutes later, it landed 8 km away on Ogi Island, to the applause of waiting residents.

Masato Ono, an IT engineer from Takamatsu, was the man behind this invention.

Ogi has a population of around 180 and uses ferries as its main means of transport. The ferry, which runs six times a day, takes about 40 minutes. The last one departs a little after 6 p.m.

Ono, 37, often visits Ogi for work and decided to improve the situation after residents complained about the inconvenience of purchasing daily goods on the island.

He decided to use helicopter-type drones that can fly preprogrammed routes and GPS tracking to automate the flying process.

Ono’s invention is not restricted by the Civil Aeronautics Act, at the moment. The act does not cover unmanned aircraft and does not require any that fly below an altitude of 150 meters to be registered.

The use of drones has the potential to change the future of commodity distribution. In the United States, online retailer Amazon is working on using them for home delivery.

Ono asked K&S Co., a Nagoya-based maker of remote control helicopters and equipment, to develop the drone.

K&S has a reputation for stable RC helicopters, which are often used for filming, disaster zone surveillance and evaluating damage to infrastructure, such as bridges.

K&S President Kiyokazu Sugaki quickly agreed to work with Ono and designed a drone with a carbon cover to reduce wind resistance from the sea.

The square-shaped aircraft is a meter on each side and has a rotor on each corner. It can fly 50 minutes at a time at a maximum speed of 40 kph.

For the trial run, a camera and a medical kit weighing roughly 1 kg were attached beneath the drone.

The drone was tracked by a high-speed boat as it flew toward Ogi to make sure it followed its course.

“Next time, I’d like to test its ability to withstand bad weather such as strong winds,” Ono said.

“I developed this to connect isolated islands and I hope to see it used in other parts of the world, too,” he added.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Jan. 31.