"The government is considering new regulations but it takes a long time," said Shinji Suzuki, director of the Center of Aviation Innovation Research at the University of Tokyo, which uses Yamaha's helicopters to survey the magnetic fields of volcanoes.
Suzuki's lab has been researching autonomous navigation abilities for drones, and the Fukushima disaster influenced how lab member Chris Raabe formulated his research.
"I was very much motivated to develop a sensor that would enable a drone to enter and explore a damaged facility," Raabe said via email. "However, I later found that typical digital cameras are easily affected by radiation."
Raabe has worked with colleagues at Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology and Boeing in the U.S. to develop a hexacopter system that navigates by computer vision instead of the common method of GPS and digital compass. The system orients by tracking landmarks in the environment, and while it has problems with moving objects and shadows, it could be configured to be 10 to 100 times more precise than systems using GPS, Raabe said.
To help drive new drone technology, Suzuki is serving as head of the Japan UAS Industrial Development Association (JUIDA), a group of about 100 companies and people focused on proposing regulations for the nonprofit use of drones in Japan.
With plans to publish draft rules this summer, it's coordinating with government ministries on issues such as pilot licensing and drone safety, manufacturing and radio transmissions. Regulations for commercial drones, such as those recently put forth by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation, are farther off.
Another reason that Japan is playing catch-up in drones is the state of its commercial aviation industry. In World War II, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' Zero fighter was renowned for maneuverability in dogfighting. But aircraft production and training went into rapid decline under the postwar Allied Occupation, Suzuki noted.
This year, Mitsubishi, which has long made parts for Boeing jetliners, is slated to begin trial flights of a regional jet that will become the first full-scale Japanese commercial aircraft in about 40 years. Meanwhile, Honda Motor's HondaJet, a small business jet, is entering service in 2015.
This renaissance in Japanese aviation is giving domestic drones a shot in the arm. The government's Robot Revolution Realization Committee wants to overhaul laws that may hinder drone development. The state also wants to designate testing areas with little regulation to spur drone development. An international drone expo is also planned for May outside Tokyo.
"In Japan, it may be too late to enter the drone manufacturing industry as there are large manufacturers in the United States and China, but we are developing sensors and application software, so that's one possible way to find a market," Suzuki said.
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