A team led by Nebraska university scientists has won a federal grant to further develop aerial drones that could hover over and sample water from lakes, ponds and streams that people can't easily reach. (Nati Harnik, AP)
Tokyo - The government of Japan, a country with a proven track record in electronics and robotics, is looking to fast track industry-friendly regulation to give its drone sector an edge over the United States.
Companies from motorcycle maker Yamaha Motor to security firm Secom are readying drone technology and services, as advisers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drive a regulatory overhaul.
The Robot Revolution Realisation Committee, an advisory panel appointed by Abe, will review existing radio and civil aeronautics laws and set up industry-run best practice for drones.
Another panel is asking companies for ideas on how to open up new special economic zones in Tokyo and other big cities to drones on a test basis.
The Fukushima area, blighted by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, could also become a "field 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, who heads the robot panel. "It's not about copying other markets, but learning about them and creating something better."
The only aviation regulations covering drones in Japan require that they fly below 150 meters and at least 9 kilometres 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 agriculture drones are in operation.
Yamaha is now looking to adapt its drone technology for patrolling Japan's borders or for checking oil and gas pipelines, spokesman Kinji Otsuki told Reuters.
Secom will this month launch a service for small businesses that includes having a surveillance drone that can be scrambled to take photos of an intruder when an alarm sounds.
Spokesperson Asuka Saito said the company also wants to pitch its security drones for use at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
And Ricoh, an office equipment maker, has been testing its digital cameras on drones to monitor crop growth in field tests, said new business development manager Wataru Ohtani.
Partly due to the lack of regulations for outdoor test flights, Ryo Konomura, one of the founders of Tokyo University's Phenox Lab, developed an indoor drone with artificial intelligence capability.
Japanese drone industry supporters have dubbed 2015 Year One of the Era of the Drone.