Japan has robot chops aplenty. Honda has the world's most sophisticated humanoid robot, Japanese industrial robot makers are among the best, and the country's space agency landed a robot probe on a speeding asteroid and returned samples to Earth.
But when it comes to drones, Japan is almost a nonentity in a rapidly growing market. The odd made-in-Japan drones show up at tech trade shows in Tokyo, but these are usually for research purposes and are exhibited by small startups or university groups.
The absence of drones is puzzling, given that Japan has the electronics know-how and vast camera and video markets, which drones have entered overseas. The earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant four years ago, however, are helping open a path for Japan to bring its technological expertise to drone innovation.
Deployed by Japan's atomic and space agencies, drones have been used as experimental sensors to measure radiation levels at the contaminated site. Drone enthusiasts have also captured stunning aerial views of the region. And Fukushima Prefecture is now slated to host the country's first mass production of hexacopter, or six-rotor, drones.
A spin-off of Chiba University, Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory, plans to mass produce the high-end hexacopter that will initially help cleanup crews by performing radiation surveys of the crippled complex.
Armed with a laser scanner to help navigate, the 90 centimeter-diameter drone has a top speed of 10 meters per second and can carry a payload of 6 kilograms including radiation detectors and a battery. The startup recently celebrated the machine's maiden flight in Fukushima, and plans to turn out 400 units in its first production run.
"These drones will be able to perform free autonomous flight in a non-GPS environment," said Kenzo Nonami, a Chiba University robotics professor heading the startup.
With a price between ¥2 million (US$16,500) and ¥3 million, the machines are far from being affordable consumer drones. But they will be targeted at companies doing aerial video and photography, one of the most popular consumer apps for drones, and could be a step toward a domestic consumer drone industry.
Large Japanese manufacturers such as Yamaha Motor, NEC and Fuji Heavy Industries, on the other hand, are developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for industry, surveillance and research, but they've shown little interest in consumer drones. For decades, Yamaha has produced powerful gasoline-engine unmanned helicopters with 30kg payloads for agricultural use, but it has no plans for consumer applications, a company spokesman said.
One problem holding back drones is that Japan lacks laws that can apply to the recent drone boom. The only applicable regulations state that vehicles must fly under 150m and remain at least 9km from airports.
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