CHIBA – With the market for business-use unmanned aircraft looking promising in coming years, a large-scale drone expo that kicked off Wednesday showed more companies are eager to get involved with the industry.
Companies ranging from the small to the powerful are showing off their business solutions using drones at Japan Drone, an annual exhibition at Makuhari Messe in Chiba that features more than 200 firms and runs until Friday.
Telecom giant KDDI Corp. is showcasing its “smart” drone platform connected to KDDI’s mobile communication networks across the country, which allows a drone to navigate a wider swath of territory via remote control.
“One merit of using our service is that drones can be remote controlled through our communication networks anywhere in Japan, unlike most drones exhibited at this event, which tap Wi-Fi networks with limited coverage,” said So Yamazaki, a KDDI official.
KDDI will launch the service to corporate customers in June and lists surveillance, inspection, land survey and analysis as the envisioned applications.
Industrial usage is sure to grow in the coming years, said Yamazaki.
One particular area he personally has high expectations for is the surveillance of factories, stadiums and other facilities, as this spans a wide range of industries.
KDDI’s rival NTT Docomo Inc., Japan’s largest mobile phone carrier in terms of subscribers, is also displaying its new drone business, which is scheduled to debut this year.
“We are looking not only at domestic potential but also overseas,” said Shinji Okazaki, manager of the drone business development office at NTT Docomo.
Like KDDI, NTT Docomo provides a packaged solution that uses unmanned aerial vehicles that can connect to its mobile communication networks, provides the machines and software and applies for flight permission. The carrier will also launch an inspection service for solar panels.
The presence of more large firms at the expo indicates that business opportunities for drones are growing, said Takashi Nasu, chief operating officer at Blue innovation Co., which provides drone solutions for purposes such as indoor infrastructure inspection and security surveillance.
The Tokyo-based company also provides drone landing ports, which have been used for drone delivery experiments in mountainous areas. Drones can land more accurately if they have visual recognition of the ports, and these spots could be critical hubs for logistics services in depopulated areas, Nasu said.
While many companies are pitching industry-use drones, Drone no Yado, which launched last October, is seeking to tap drones’ entertainment value.
Next month, it will offer nonexperienced drone users the chance to stay overnight with other enthusiasts to practice drone photography and videography. The plan will see people stay at an inn in the hot spring area of Yuhuin, Oita Prefecture, and also comes with training sessions to teach them how to operate the drones and edit the images they take.
“We are inviting people who purely want to enjoy taking aerial images,” said official Tetsuya Sonoda. The overnight plan costs ¥35,000, he said.
In the future, the service may be pitched to non-Japanese as “drone tourism,”said Kaz Naito, who manages the inn.
The overall business drone market in Japan is projected to grow to ¥93.1 billion in fiscal 2018, up 85 percent from the previous year, according to the 2019 edition of the Drone Business Research Report by Impress Research Institute, the think tank of media company Impress Corp. That would jump to ¥507.3 billion in fiscal 2024.
The biggest chunk of the service market growth between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2020 is expected to come from the agricultural sector, which uses drones to spray agrochemicals and fertilizers.
From fiscal 2022 onward, infrastructure inspection is expected to be the No. 1 driver of market growth, followed by agriculture and logistics.
“Much of Japan’s infrastructure is aging because it was built during the period of rapid economic development (from the mid-1950s to the early-1970s),” said Daisuke Kono, a researcher at Impress Research Institute. “The government and companies began surveying facilities as experiments or for business, with hopes running high for more efficient inspections.”