Drones may have been hugely successful in the West, but their popularity in Japan hasn’t always been so steady. In recent times, things have been changing.
Just like personal computers and the Internet, drones first came to prominence as military technology.
“A drone is an autonomous flying robot,” said Hisanori Sunohara, CEO of Drone Japan. “They have flight controllers, gyro sensors and GPS so they can fly without being operated by a human pilot. Unmanned aircraft such as the Predator (RQ-1) were originally developed by the US military to attack targets during the War on Terror in 2001.”
Today, using drones for commercial purposes is rampant.
A study has shown that the drone market in Japan is expected to hit US$172.54 million by the end of 2016, and reach a staggering US$986.73 million by 2020. The market value in 2020 could even exceed this prediction, if services such as aerial photography and surveying continue to grow.
There are three main commercial applications for drones in Japan: aerial photography, logistics and digital scanning. Among the three, Sunohara believes digital scanning has the greatest potential.
Digital scanning means drones can digitise real environments. When coupled with 3D data and IoT technology, it can dramatically change the transport, construction and agriculture sectors.
How Will It Affect the Transport Industry?
Take the transport industry for instance. With digital scanning technology, autonomous vehicle systems will become a reality.
“When we talk about driverless vehicles, we tend to focus on the functions of the car itself, like automatic braking and steering,” said Sunohara. “But what’s even more important is supplying the vehicles with up-to-the-minute traffic information.”
The Japanese government has announced plans to create a “next-generation transport system” before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and digital scanning will be a vital part of the project.
Digital scanning is already being used in the construction industry, where aerial site images and data captured by drones are uploaded and analysed in order to automate construction work.
This is a key part of the i-Construction initiative launched by the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to improve productivity in Japan, where the falling population is leading to a shortage of skilled engineers.
“This technology reduces training time and costs – it means new employees can perform advanced operations that used to require 10 years of experience,” said Sunohara.
Planning for the Future
Agriculture is another sector affected by Japan’s declining birthrate and labour shortages – an area where drones could be the answer.
“Farmers can use drones fitted with sensors to monitor their crops from the sky, checking the growth of rice plants, looking for pests and so on,” said Sunohara.
Soon, processes like crop spraying will be automated to improve efficiency even further. As the world population increases and water shortages start to impact agricultural production, these “precision agriculture” techniques developed in Japan could play an important role in solving the impending global food crisis.
For Japanese companies to succeed in the drone market, Sunohara believes that integration is key. “We need to come up with business models involving drones as part of the Internet of Things,” said Sunohara, “not as a standalone technology.”
Japan has a reputation for high-tech manufacturing, and is particularly good at “miniaturising” hardware. “We should be able to make use of this to make drones smaller, which will reduce the risk of crashes,” said Sunohara. “If we can take that even further and develop compact unmanned aircraft that can be flown indoors, we may even see drones flying around factories and warehouses in a few years’ time.”