[Editor’s Note: Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory (ACSL) is collaborating with Rakuten on a delivery project.]
This post originally appeared on http://www.thenational.ae/business/technology/japans-drone-sector-flying-high#full.
From high-street playthings to sophisticated commercial and military aircraft, drones are seen as being at the sharp end of technology.
Yet, paradoxically, traditionally low-tech countries such as India and Pakistan are now churning out their own models. The commercial drone business is driven by advances in key components such as sensors, lenses and radio control devices – and manufacturers buy these from producers in advanced tech countries.
“Such components are typically made only in the most advanced nations, particularly Japan,” says the Ireland-based journalist Eamonn Fingleton.
“In fact, Japan is the power behind the throne in the drone business,” says Mr Fingleton, who has written three books on the economies of east Asian countries.
Shinji Suzuki, a professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics at the School of Engineering of the University of Tokyo, agrees. “In advanced parts, such as sensors and controllers, Japan is still tops, and I think that will continue in the future,” he says.
Chiba City was designated this year by the Japanese cabinet as a National Strategic Special Zone for developing delivery drones, with a focus on examining institutional and regulatory reforms and the goal of introducing industrial applications of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The project’s technological investigative committee is chaired by the University of Chiba professor emeritus Kenzo Nonami.
To apply his autonomous control system to drones for a variety of industries, Mr Nonami established in 2013 the Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory (ACSL). ACSL develops its own autopilot/flight controllers that function as the brains of the drone, and is the only company in the country that carries out everything from acquiring parts to manufacture and sales entirely in Japan.
ACSL’s drones can be used for aerial photography, delivery, spraying, measuring and surveying, with potential applications in fields including logistics, agriculture, disaster response, security and infrastructure inspections.
Users described the service as “fun”, “cool,” “a state-of-the-art service so I am looking forward to using it again”, says the Rakuten corporate communications team assistant manager, Yuki Tokaji. “If we can solve problems such as service operational efficiency, we would consider service continuation and expansion, as well as service development at other golf courses,” Mr Tokaji says.
Such systems are increasingly a necessity because the country is faced with a shortage of lorry drivers, Mr Nonami says, and costs are high. “Drone delivery cost will be only 10 per cent of conventional delivery,” he says.
But one challenge in common with driverless cars will be legislation. International agreements already exist for traditional aircraft but drones are prohibited by Japanese law from flying higher than 150 metres, near airports or over densely inhabited areas. “There may be legal problems from owners of private property,” Mr Nonami points out.
The Chiba City Fire Department (CHFD) was equipped in May with a disaster-response drone provided free of charge by the national Fire and Disaster Management Agency. Operators have been trained to use the drone to gather information and search for people during major disasters, and it has been operational since October.
When emergency fire response teams provide support after a major disaster occurs, the drone will be effective as a tool that can rapidly gather vital data from the air, search for people, establish rescue routes, and confirm the safety or otherwise of relevant areas.
Developed by the Japanese company enRoute, the drone can automatically navigate a specified path from take-off to landing. Able to fly for up to 20 minutes, it has the ability to automatically return to its take-off point in case of signal failure or the battery level falling below a set value.
Helicopters are usually used in case of disasters but there are times when helicopters cannot fly because there is not enough space or too much smoke, for instance, says the CHFD fire lieutenant Takayuki Mitsui. “Also, helicopters make a lot of noise and vibrations, which inhibits searching for people,” Mr Mitsui says.
And given the rapid development of drone technology in the country, there should be a bright future for Japan in the export market, he says.
“I think that to fulfil requirements for large, safe drones, Japan will be able to export to the world in the future.”