Drone-makers say demand will take off in Japan


Staff Writer

Despite a spate of headlines showing drone users to be reckless attention-seekers or outright dangerous, the industry believes the sky is the limit for demand for unmanned copters.

Representatives attending Japan’s first major industry exhibition Wednesday said they expect the market for unmanned multirotor aerial vehicles to soar in years ahead.

Participants at the International Drone Expo at Makuhari Messe, Chiba Prefecture, also said proper regulations are needed for both the industry and users. They welcome the fact that the government is now trying to develop rules for drone use.

“I understand that there is some criticism, but drones will be more widely used without a doubt. They have higher general versatility and flight stability than helicopters and planes,” said Masaya Kikuchi, an engineer with Chuo Electronics Co.

The Tokyo-based company makes systems that enable drones to fly without human control. Kikuchi said the market’s potential represents a good business opportunity for the firm.

He predicts that the market will develop around businesses rather than consumers. For example, construction companies can use drones to examine the condition of bridges in instances where it would be difficult for a human to reach, and security firms can operate them for surveillance.

The event is the first international drone expo to take place in Japan, with 50 firms participating. Although relatively small, occupying a minor site at the convention center, on Wednesday it was packed, showing high interest among the public.

The fact that drones have made media headlines recently might have stirred interest.

An unmanned quadcopter carrying a radioactive payload was found on the roof of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office on April 22. A man from Fukui Prefecture came forward, saying he had carried out the stunt in protest at the government’s nuclear policy. He was arrested and charged.

Other incidents that made recent headlines include broadcaster Tokyo MX flying a drone by mistake into the grounds of the British Embassy in April, and another flown by a 15-year-old boy falling at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, which prompted the monks to ban flights on the premises.

The radioactive drone case prompted the government to set about drafting rules. It is reportedly considering requiring people to register their names and addresses when purchasing one. It also plans to ban overflights at facilities such as the prime minister’s office, the Imperial Palace and the Diet.

Currently, people are basically free to fly drones anywhere at altitudes below 250 meters, except near airports and some parks.

“The current situation is not very good because there is no law. (Some of) our customers question where they can fly drones and whether they need permission,” said Wu Tao, who heads the Japan branch of China-based DJI, a major drone maker.

“If we have a law that states where to get permission or licenses and establishes insurance systems, I think that will energize the industry,” said Wu, who addressed an international symposium during the expo.

Randy Mackay, who heads Nagano-based drone software company Japan Drones, said regulations are important because they will help to guide engineers and manufacturers.

For instance, if flying over the Prime Minister’s Official Residence is off limits, “we can add software features, which will stop the copter going over top of this house. . . . In that way, regulations are actually quite helpful,” said Mackay.

  • GBR48

    Drones can be incredibly useful and could probably save lives, particularly with IR cameras when searching for lost children or vulnerable people on cold nights. But the inherent dangers need to be dealt with.

    Whilst it is possible to use GPS and an on-board database in firmware to exclude some areas from drone flights, this would decline in effectiveness if newly banned locations could not be added, and it could be disabled relatively easily. It may be advisable to demand that a kill-switch be built into all chipsets, that cannot be reprogrammed.

    The kill switch would recognise a coded command broadcast on all relevant frequencies in turn by a pocket device with a directional antenna. Once the command was received, the drone would stop, slowly descend, land and then render itself permanently inoperative, requiring return to the manufacturer to work again.

    The kill switch could be broadcast permanently from sensitive locations, at a power level that would affect any approaching drone.

    A pre-programmed drone with no antenna would be immune, but it should otherwise be difficult to block, and if buried within a surface mount chipset, with suitable security measures, it should be difficult to hack.

    Nothing would be 100% effective, but it is a viable option.