March 30, 2016      

TOKYO — Japan this month held its first drone exhibition focused on commercial applications, with machines on display that can do everything from laying cable to checking infrastructure. Sponsored by the Japan UAS Industrial Development Association, Japan Drone 2016 was a small event outside Tokyo that had about 8,000 attendees, but it highlights the growing importance of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) here. A similar event, the International Drone Expo, drew some 9,300 visitors last April.

Major Japanese consumer brands such as Sony Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., and Ricoh Co. have entered the field recently, developing drone technologies for business applications. The commercial drone market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 57 percent from 2016 to 2020, predicts Research and Markets.

NTT demoes cable-carrying drone at Drone Expo

Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT), for instance, brought the latest examples of its Multiheli hexacopter, which the telcom giant began developing after the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan in March 2011.

Commercial drones at Japan's Drone Expo include the Multiheli

NTT displayed its cable-relaying Multiheli UAV.

The basic platform features GPS-enabled navigation and real-time video from its onboard camera for worksite flybys.

One of the newer versions of Multiheli is a heavy-duty, eight-rotor UAV with a large spool under its chassis for laying cable and two extra battery packs for over 15 minutes of flight. It can carry up to 20 kg (44 lb.) of cable, either 200 meters (656 ft.) of metal cable or 500 m (1,640 ft.) of fiber-optic cable.

“We have built drones that can check our equipment, restore communication lines over rivers and valleys, and survey disaster sites,” said Takahiro Yabuki, a chief examiner for UAVs at NTT East.

More drone developments

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has increased the ceiling for commercial drones from 200 ft. to 400 ft., despite ongoing safety concerns. The new altitude limit affects businesses and government agencies that already have Section 333 exemptions.

“Expanding the authorized airspace for these operations means government and industry can carry out unmanned aircraft missions more quickly and with less red tape,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. A final rule for commercial unmanned aerial systems weighing less than 55 lb. is expected soon.

Despite a prohibition of drone operations within 5 miles of airports with control towers, the FAA received reports of 1,200 near-miss incidents with aircraft in 2015. According to the agency, most accidents happen above 400 ft.

Some consumer hobbyists are most likely responsible for the near misses, and the FAA began an online registry last year for drones weighing more than .55 lb. The number of aerial drones in the U.S. could reach 7 million by 2020.

Several organizations are pursuing drone deliveries. Maersk Tankers recently conducted a test delivery via drone to a vessel at sea. Nevada-based startup Flirtey last week made the first FAA-approved drone delivery, as a six-roto UAV brought an emergency kit along a half-mile, preprogrammed route. Inc. plans to test its Prime Air program in April. The FAA already granted Amazon permission to operate at 400 ft. and at speeds up to 100 mph. There has been some speculation that Amazon is actually more interested in applications other than drone deliveries.

According to Navigant Research, global spending on drones and robotics for transmission and distribution will reach about $16.2 billion from 2015 to 2024.

UAVs to spot, halt corrosion

While NTT is also working on drones that can survey large structures such as bridges, other organizations are taking that a step further. One large UAV displayed at the show can wield a hammer-like device to inspect concrete walls and pilings. The machine flies up to a wall and then taps it repeatedly, just like a human inspector.

A cable carries the sound to controllers on the ground, who listen for telltale sounds of cracks and decay. The system can reduce maintenance costs significantly, according to Naotaka Shikida of the Highway Technology Research Center, which worked with Chiba University spinoff Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd. and NEC Corp.

Meanwhile, Shibaura Institute of Technology and Seibu Construction Co. showed off a drone equipped with a small tank and nozzle for spraying impregnating agents on concrete surfaces to protect them from corrosion. The UAV is designed for use in areas that are difficult to access, such as tunnel walls and ceilings.

Another drone that could be used in tunnels, logistics centers, and other environments without reliable GPS signals was created by a group including the University of Tokyo and Ricoh. It has a special camera and inertial measurement units (IMUs) to ensure stable flight indoors.

“We have developed a super-wide-angle stereo vision camera system that can be mounted on a drone, and succeeded in automatic indoor flight in combination with the IMU system without the help of any kind of ground station,” said Shinji Suzuki, a professor in the University of Tokyo’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Addressing security concerns

Security companies Alsok and Secom Co. showed off drone-detection systems to address security concerns about UAVs, which were heightened after a drone containing traces of radiation landed on the Japanese prime minister’s office in April 2015 as part of a protest against the state’s nuclear energy policy.

Alsok’s system uses powerful microphones to pick up the distinct hum of rotors when a UAV is as far as 150 meters (492 ft.) away. Secom, which in December launched a sleek silver UAV that can photograph suspicious people and vehicles, exhibited a more sophisticated drone-detection system that also uses radar (see image above).

More on Commercial Drones:

Diverse drone applications

Other drone-related equipment drew attention at the show. Hitachi Maxell Ltd., known for making cassette tapes in the 1980s, displayed a lithium-ion battery that can increase UAV flight time. About 11 cm tall by 9 cm across (4.3 by 3.5 in.), the 132Wh battery weighs 766 grams (27 oz.) and starts shipping in May. Nearby, fishing tackle maker Miyamae Co. demonstrated a motorized reel that keeps drones on a 300-meter line, preventing them from accidentally going astray or hitting trees and buildings.

A Predator drone at Drone Expo in Tokyo

General Atomics brought a Predator drone to Japan.

By far, the most surprising display at Japan Drone 2016 was a full-scale mockup of a Predator XP drone, which costs about $9 million. The unarmed, export version of the famous Predator had visitors turning their heads and taking snapshots.

General Atomics is trying to build on its sale to the United Arab Emirates of the XP, which has a 17-meter (55-ft.) wingspan and a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet. The San Diego-based company hopes the Japanese government or state-backed agencies such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will take interest.

“Humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, surveillance for security purposes is truly what the airplane was built for, and we thought this would be a great venue to make that point,” said Phillip Mills, a director at General Atomics. “The things that Predator is widely known for is a very small part of the capabilities that we bring.”