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.