Multicopters find multitude of uses

A multicopter owned by the firefighting headquarters in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, transports a yellow life vest in a training exercise in the city. The copter is equipped with a silver camera near its center, and a loudspeaker on the right part of its lower frame.

Multicopters - small, easy-to-fly helicopter drones - are rapidly being put to use in a variety of fields, from search-and-rescue and equipment inspections to crime prevention and hobby pursuits.

While society will likely benefit from these and other applications, major hurdles need to be cleared in terms of creating rules for safety.

Multicopters run on battery power, typically for 15 to 30 minutes, and have excellent hovering ability. Though usually controlled by radio, they can fly automatically if equipped with a Global Positioning System device.

Both the size and price of multicopters began shrinking significantly a few years ago.

Industrial-use models can be obtained for ¥100,000 (S$1,136) to ¥1 million, while hobby types for taking aerial photographs only cost around ¥10,000.

The firefighting headquarters of Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, which saw flooding on the Kii Peninsula four years ago, has purchased a four-rotor copter for ¥1 million.

The city plans to use the copter, about one meter long with a main body that weighs about three kilograms, to transport rescue supplies and search for missing persons after disasters.

There is also a plan to use multicopters to measure radiation levels in damaged reactor buildings at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Multicopters were used to observe the crater of Mt. Ontake after the volcano erupted last year.

Many other uses for multicopters are in the works, such as for monitoring suspicious people or transporting goods between outlying islands.

US online retailer, Inc. has said it would like to use drones to deliver purchases.

The global market for unmanned aircraft is expected to double in the next 10 years to about ¥1.3 trillion.

Addressing safety

However, as uses for drones grow, there has also been an increase in accidents.

Last April, a multicopter taking aerial photographs crashed in Nagoya. In November, a multicopter crashed while filming a marathon in Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture, slightly injuring a staff member.

In the United States, there have been near misses between drones and passenger aircraft, and a multicopter even crashed on the grounds of the White House.

In addition to safety concerns, there are worries about drones invading people's privacy or being used for terrorism.

In Japan, there are no legal restrictions on drone use as long as they are flown below 150 meters altitude and not close to an airport.

For this reason, in its robot strategy released in January, the government called for creating rules on operating drones and the passage of relevant legislation. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry's Civil Aviation Bureau has started to examine safety rules.

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