Japanese companies are clamoring to secure a niche in the development of drones (see below) - small, unmanned aircraft capable of automated flight.
Regulations have been tightened since a drone was landed atop the Prime Minister's Office in April, but these aircraft are still expected to make great contributions in a wide variety of industries, from construction to agriculture, and the market shows no sign of slowing.
It will take more than just better-quality drones, however, for Japanese companies to catch up to their Chinese counterparts. More than anything, it will be crucial for Japan to create a safe flying environment for the devices.
In August, Sony Corp. established Aerosense Inc., a new robotics development venture. Aerosense develops both helicopter and airplane-type drones that are manufactured in Japan. It will start leasing helicopter-type drones in the first half of 2016, and hopes to generate ¥10 billion (S$118 million) in sales by fiscal 2020.
Aerosense's drones are expected to serve a variety of purposes, including surveys and progress checks of construction and civil engineering sites. "We've already been approached by over 100 companies, both inside and outside of Japan," Aerosense President Hisashi Taniguchi said enthusiastically. "It's more than we ever envisioned."
In February, construction equipment manufacturer Komatsu Ltd. began a survey service where drones are used to film prospective construction sites, with video of the rugged land surface converted to three-dimensional data.
Fujitsu Ltd. has long conducted infrastructure checks through visual and hammering tests, and is developing technology to perform these checks from the air.
NEC Corp., one of the sponsors of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, is contemplating how to utilize drones for the Tokyo Games.
Researchers including Kenzo Nonami, a distinguished professor at Chiba University and the leader of drone research in Japan, established a venture company to put domestic drones to practical use for aerial filming and farm use. One drone is being utilized to measure radiation doses in Fukushima.
According to the market research company Seed Planning, Inc., the domestic market for drones is expected to rise from ¥1.6 billion in 2015 to ¥18.6 billion in 2020. US market research company Frost & Sullivan expects that by 2020, business-use drones alone will generate US$6.4 billion (about ¥775 billion or S$9.2 billion) in worldwide sales.
China has advantage
Although "drone" has only recently become a buzzword, the aircraft themselves have been used for decades in agriculture and other fields.
Yamaha Motor Co. started selling a model that sprayed pesticides in 1988. It is currently used on about 36 per cent of Japan's rice paddies, with roughly 300 units sold worldwide every year. Major sensor company Keyence Corp. started selling its own 120-gram, four-propeller type in 1989, contributing to Japan's reputation as an advanced nation.
Now, however, Japan's presence in the drone industry is weak. Chinese manufacturer DJI appears to control 70 per cent of the world market for business-use drone products.
China has made excellent use of the rapid development of communications technology, riding a wave of growing demand. Chinese smartphone manufacturing hubs are expanding, and the low cost and ready availability of GPS, batteries and other smartphone parts have contributed to the growth of China's drone production.
Japanese manufacturers "contributed to the proliferation of remote-control drones, but they got a late start in developing self-flying models," an industry insider said.
In contrast, the United States is on the brink of a "distribution revolution," wherein drones are intended to be used to deliver products bought on e-commerce sites. Amazon.com Inc. is currently experimenting with a drone-based delivery service that brings products to your door within half an hour of purchase. Google Inc. is also developing its own drones for home delivery.
Japan possesses drone technology, but the domestic industry will fall behind foreign competitors if companies here do not take steps to utilize that technology. That would be a similar outcome to what happened with Japan's solar panel and smartphone industries.
Rules crucial for wider use
For the drone industry to develop further, it is crucial for Japan to create a safe flying environment for drones. According to Kenzo Nonami, a distinguished professor at Chiba University, the key for advancing "Made in Japan" drones is "making, as our first priority, a set of easy-to-understand rules for safe drone flight."
Support has grown for the tightening of drone flight regulations since the incident at the Prime Minister's Office. A bill for revising the Civil Aeronautics Law and other lawmaker-initiated bills were passed early this month.
These include drone flight conditions restricting access to the airspace above the Prime Minister's Office and the Imperial Palace, and the requirement that "during the day, proper distance from people and buildings be maintained, and surrounding conditions be monitored visually at all times."
It is unclear what specific, law-based drone regulations will be established. In light of this, major security company SECOM Co. has postponed the introduction of their drone-based security service, which was originally due in June.
"Project expansion will hinge on what kind of regulations are created," Aerosense President Hisashi Taniguchi said.
In the United States, you must be 17 or older to fly a drone, and flights are limited to the airspace up to 150 metres above ground. These and other rules are still being created, and there has even been talk of creating airspace exclusively for drones.
During the early days of the automobile, many people said that even if they had cars, there were no roads on which to drive them.
The automobile sector did not develop into one of Japan's biggest industries simply because of its excellent quality. Rather, the laws and environmental regulations born from the Road Traffic Law helped make it what it is today, as did Japan's array of maintenance and insurance systems.
The proliferation of drones will require systems for telling them apart, much like license plates for cars, and for insurance purposes in the event of an accident.
Regulations will soon go into effect, and for 2015 to be called the first year of Japan's "age of drones," it is essential to hasten the establishment of a comprehensive set of rules for proper drone use.
Small aircraft capable of unmanned flight. Male honey bees are also called drones in English, from the sound made by the bees' wings when in flight. One special feature of drones is their ability to use GPS and other equipment to conduct automated flights. The most common type of drone is called a multicopter, which flies using several different propellers.