Schools for drone flying really take off

Yomiuri Shimbun reporter Hiromichi Sakurai, left, flies a drone in an indoor facility at Drone School Japan in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on June 12.
PHOTO: The Japan News/Asia News Network

In a vacant plot of land surrounded by trees, a small unmanned aircraft with four 20-centimeter rotors hovered above the ground while emitting a high-pitched buzz.

The aircraft, a drone, then flew all around while nimbly avoiding obstacles at acute angles. It travelled much faster than I had imagined, and I felt dizzy just watching it.

More and more people are becoming fascinated by drones, and with the increase, schools for flying the machines are also flourishing. There are even races for handmade drones, which are becoming all the rage.

The drone that I saw was flying at an outdoor air race circuit called Sky Game Splash, which opened in Wakaba Ward, Chiba, in July 2015. The race circuit is about 25 meters wide and about 100 meters long.

The "racers" wore goggles as they controlled their drones. Drone fans gathered closely around them and enthusiastically watched them at work.

Drones used in races can fly at speeds of up to 160 kph.

The racers are members of the Japan Drone League (JDL), an organisation that holds such competitions across the nation. They have outside jobs, and in addition to participating in drone races, offer training sessions for beginners.

On the inside of their goggles, videos transmitted from cameras attached to the drones are displayed.

"It's like we've become the drone and are flying," said Toru Takahashi, 43, a co-representative of JDL, in explaining the attraction.

Many of the drones built for racing are handmade, with the owners fixing the motors, sensors and other parts by themselves.

A large number of racers belong to the generation that was fascinated with remote-controlled toys in their childhood.

On the day I observed them, about 20 men who looked to be in their 40s enthusiastically peppered the racers with questions about the structures and other details of their drones.

"I'm totally hooked by the sense of speed," said a 48-year-old company employee from Yotsukaido, Chiba Prefecture, who visited the air race circuit for the first time. "I hope I can make one myself, and make flying drones a new hobby I can share with my son."

Teaching the drone basics

For individuals who fly drones, various rules have been specified by law to ensure safety. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of schools that teach these rules and the practical skills of flying drones.

Among them is Drone School Japan, Tokyo Shiomi Branch, in Koto Ward, Tokyo. The school offers a two day-long training programme for beginners.

In one session lasting over an hour, the school teaches the places where flying drones is permitted, and how to apply for governmental permission for flying in air spaces for which such permission is needed.

Technical skills are taught inside a warehouse-like building on a practice field surrounded by nets.

I tried to fly a drone using a box-shaped controller, but control of the joystick has to be very precise and I nearly crashed the drone into the floor several times.

The school opened in October 2016 and the number of students has continued to rise.

"In the future, drones will be used in ways we can't even imagine now," said school instructor Takashi Shimozuru, 46. "By acquiring the basics, I think they'll discover the appeal of drones more and more."

Some local governments are paying closer attention to drones.

On Ishigakijima island in Okinawa Prefecture, the governments of Ishigaki city, Taketomi town and other entities formed an organising committee to hold the Ishigaki Drone Race 2017.

In the inaugural race held in March this year, participants put their skills to the test by flying their drones over a 500-meter course inside a park.

Videos transmitted from the drones were displayed on a large screen and streamed live on the internet.

March is normally the island's low season for tourism, but on the day of the race, about 500 people came from both on and off the island.

"In terms of tourism, it was a great success," said Takuya Ara, 42, division chief of the Ishigaki city government's planning and policy section. "The event may become a new attraction for tourism here."

Drones have an attractiveness that lures machine lovers, and their popularity and use will surely continue unabated.

However, it is duly important to fly them safely. Hopefully, with the use of schools and other means, people will enjoy drones while strictly following the rules.

Main rules for individuals flying drones

  • Flights should be limited to daytime.
  • Flights are prohibited at altitudes over 150 meters.
  • Do not fly in places where large numbers of people are gathered, or near airports.
  • Keep drones at least 30 meters away from other people's cars or buildings.

(Based on guidelines set by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry)

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