The importance of gaining a headstart in the development and deployment of drone technology is driving fierce competition between rival countries, such as the USA, Japan and China.
In Japan, the government is looking to fast-track industry friendly regulation in order to give its drone sector the edge, building on the country’s global reputation in electronics and robotics.
Representatives from companies such as Yamaha Motor and security firm Secom Co are acting as advisers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the drive to overhaul existing drone regulations.
The Robot Revolution Realization Committee, an advisory panel appointed by Abe, will review existing radio and civil aeronautics laws and establish industry-run best practice for drones. Another panel has asked companies for ideas on how to open up new special economic zones and test spaces across Japan. The Fukushima area, for example, blighted by the 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster, could become a test zone for robots and drones, largely free of regulation.
“We want to keep an eye on the world’s drone market, starting with the United States, and consider Japan’s way of doing things,” said Tamotsu Nomakuchi, head of the Robot panel. “It's not about copying other markets, but learning about them and creating something better.”
At present, the only aviation regulations covering drones in Japan require that they fly below 150 meters and at least 9 kms (5.6 miles) away from airports. Drones used in agriculture need two operators, with precautions for the surrounding environment. Japan has been using drones in its farming industry since the 1980s, when an unmanned Yamaha R-50 helicopter took to the air to spray pesticide on rice crops. Today, more than 2,500 Japanese agriculture drones are in operation.
Yamaha is looking to adapt its drone technology to patrol Japan’s borders and for checking oil and gas pipelines.
Secom has announced plans to launch a small business service offering surveillance drones that can be scrambled to take photos of an intruder if an alarm sounds. The company also wants to pitch its security drones for use at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Despite the prospect of a global drones market being worth $100 billion over the next decade, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is perceived as dragging its feet over committing to a regulatory framework.
In February 2015, the FAA issued draft rules on who can fly drones, how and where, but it is likely to be another year before any regulations are agreed and permanently in place. This delay is creating business opportunities for non-US drone companies and ancillary services.
Existing FAA restrictions currently limit drones flying out of sight of the operator or at night, thus hobbling the ambitions of US drone companies.
However, the amount of money invested in Silicon Valley drone start-ups in 2014 – over $100 million, double that of 2013 – indicates that once regulation is in place, the US could be well-placed to dominate the drone industry.
Inevitably, China already poses a threat, with companies such as DJI already selling drone hardware for $500, making it difficult for competing companies to justify higher prices.