Drones: What’s the Rumpus?
SNA (Tokyo) — Host Michael Penn interviews journalist and book author Tim Hornyak and learns about the development and purposes of drones.
Penn: Hello, I’m Michael Penn, and welcome to Episode Five of What’s the Rumpus? In this episode, we have our first returned guest, Mr. Tim Hornyak. If you want to know who he is and what he’s about, please rewind back to Episode One, and we had the introduction with him at that time, so we’re going to get right into the material, which is the issue of drones.
Hornyak: Yes, indeed.
Penn: There was a drone show in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, last week.
Penn: What did you learn there that you didn’t already know?
Hornyak: Japan is still in its drone infancy, but things are accelerating. As you may remember, about a year ago, a drone landed on the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office roof, sending off many alarm bells, and the drone contained traces of radiation. So apparently, it was sent by someone who wanted to protest the government’s nuclear policy. That person was prosecuted, but this really raised alarm bells, and Japan since then has enacted several regulations regarding drones. Maybe one of the most important ones is that it basically bans individuals from flying hobby drones in cities. So you can’t just go off with your Phantom Drone in the middle of Shibuya and fly it around. You’ll be in trouble.
Penn: You could do that before the law was passed, right?
Hornyak: I think there was a relevant law that could have been used in that situation, but they’ve added more specific laws with this latest legislation. In terms of the expo that you mentioned in Chiba, what was interesting was that although the personal use of drones is a road block in this legislation, we’ve had quite an explosion in terms of commercial drone development in Japan. The government is also trying to help business drone use. So it’s trying to regulate, but also encourage at the same time, which is a tricky balancing act. A number of really interesting drones on display at Japan Drone 2016, which is different from another Japan drone expo called International Drone Expo, which is in April.
Penn: So coming very soon.
Hornyak: Yes, coming very soon. That one, I think, is a more international, and various drones are welcome. This one that we just had recently is more commercial drone focused. Some of the more unique drones that I saw, for example, there was one large octocoper, eight rotor drone, that could go up, and it carries a life preserver. So if someone is drowning, you can send a drone up out over the water and drop that life preserver near them to help that person in trouble. That was interesting. NTT showed off another drone system that has a cable function. Basically, it’s a large heavy-duty drone that has a giant spool that could spool out metal or fiber-optic cable. That means it can lay down cable in areas where they’ve had a natural disaster, or something like that. So the cable can go over valleys or rivers. Just to rig up communication lines that could be very heavy. There are a number of other interesting drones that I saw there, including drone components, like Maxell, which you may remember from the 1980s, they used to be the maker of cassette tapes, VHS tapes, etc. It also makes batteries, like in smartphones, which some of us probably didn’t know. Maxell is getting into the drone battery game by introducing a kind of chunky, but this big drone that could double the flight time of drones, so that was interesting. Another cool component I saw was developed by a fishing tackle maker, and this is basically a motorized wheel that allows you to keep your drone on a leash. It’s a three hundred meter long line that will attach to your drone while you’re flying your drone, and in case you don’t want it to go astray, hit trees, buildings, or people, you can keep track of the reel, and reel it in with a motor when necessary, so that was interesting too.
Penn: I’m sure you noticed there was a very big Predator Drone there as well. When I see that, I think about the US military killing a lot of people in Yemen, so what did you think when you saw that?
Hornyak: I was shocked as well. I had gone to a similar drone expo last year, and it was all similar Japan-based commercial drone developers and universities making research drones, Yamaha agricultural drone, that kind of thing. Nothing larger than this or this. Here at this drone expo last week, there was this enormous seventeen meter wingspan Predator XP drone which blew me away. I could not believe it. I was stunned. I think a lot of people there were really surprised. They were taking photos of it, snapshots of it. So I spoke to the folks at General Atomics, which displayed this mockup of the Predator, and asked them why they wanted to show it off there, and they explained that it is for civilian use. It’s a non-military version of the famous Predator Drone, and they’re hoping that entities like perhaps the Japan Coast Guard or the Japan space agency could be interested in acquiring some of these things. They’re not cheap though, they cost somewhere between eight and ten million dollars, depending on the configuration.
Penn: What would a civilian version of a Predator actually do?
Hornyak: As you know, Japan is really wrapping up its military capabilities, but a part of that would entail monitoring its sea borders with China and other Asian countries, which are in dispute islands in particular. So I imagine they want to have more surveillance if that could be done by a civilian entity of the government, that could be a possibility for General Atomics, but they’re not cheap.
Penn: Surveillance is a part of military activity, isn’t it?
Hornyak: Certainly, yes. The Coast Guard is technically non-military, but if I’m not mistaken, they have been deployed to defend Japan’s territory, so it’s within the realm of possibility. JAXA, the Japan space agency, could use it for monitoring things like rocket launches, perhaps.
Penn: As far as you know, is the Self-Defense Forces already using drones?
Hornyak: No. As far as I know, the Self-Defense Forces are not using drones, but I do know that the civilian version of the Predator, which was on display, the mockup, has been sold to the United Arab Emirates, so General Atomics is trying to wrap up this non-militarized, unarmed version of the predator for other governments.
Penn: There’s two more topics I think we want to cover with you before we wrap it up. First of all, how far along do you feel we are in drone development right now? I guess the standard image now is one day, drones are going to be delivering our pizzas and things like this. How far are we from that food delivery services and will we start seeing drones play a role in the everyday life of most people?
Hornyak: Drones can already deliver products to your home. The roadblock is regulation. As you know, Amazon in the United States has its Prime Air. They can do that, but the roadblock is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) not being willing so far to give permission for that kind of service to go forward. But Amazon is pretty confident that it will get permission, so within the next couple of years, in some locations perhaps, we could be ordering lightweight products if you live within, I believe, ten miles of Amazon Fulfillment Centers. Those lightweight, non-bulky products account for a really large proportion of all Amazon orders, something along the order of 80%. So if this does move forward, the skies around Amazon Fulfillment Centers could be full of drones racing off to drop off products at customers’ houses.
Penn: Is this actually likely to reduce costs a lot? Is it going to be cheap enough that it’s going to save companies a lot of money?
Hornyak: I think it will save a lot of money, and it will save time for delivery. The shipments won’t be snared up in traffic jams, etc., so customers will be more satisfied. However, of course, there is the safety issue. Some of these drones will go astray and they may crash into buildings, trees, whatever. Hopefully not people, but it’s something that the industry is going to have to tackle as it goes forward.
Penn: Moving back to Japan, I did see the that very recently new drone legislation was passed and then enacted. As a journalist, I’ve seen other journalists who sometimes use drones in order to get nice shots over the city and things like that. Is that now banned? What can we do?
Hornyak: For commercial purposes, you have to get permission when flying a drone in a dense residential area, which is basically all of Tokyo and other cities. As far as I understand, getting that permission from relevant authorities in Japan is pretty complex. It’s a lot of paperwork, hassle, and headache. You may want to do it without permission, I wouldn’t recommend that of course, but if you want to take risks, you can try it, and see if you can get away with it. However, this is the state of things in Japan. I’d like to note one more thing. It’s interesting that Japan is finally coming to this drone game because it’s really a johnny-come-lately. Japan had all the technology. The aeronautics technology, the miniature computer technology, the imaging technology for sure, but Japan was late to this game. The major consumer drone players are not in Japan at all. They’re in China and France. And Japan, to my knowledge, doesn’t really have any consumer drone maker of any significance so far. I hope that changes.
Penn: What accounts for this?
Hornyak: I think they were really reluctant to go forward because of the lack of clear guidelines from the government. Now that the government is issuing guidelines and laws, we may see some drone consumer startups. We are already seeing a lot of business, enterprise, and business-to-business (B2B) startups, including spin offs like Aerosense, which Sony established recently. But these are mostly, as I’ve said, for enterprise use. For example, flying drones around construction sites, doing surveys, that kind of thing, monitoring solar panel arrays, so that’s going pretty well in Japan, but the domestic consumer drone industry is really not going anywhere.
Penn: From what you know of the new law that has been passed, how would you evaluate it. You said there has to be a balance. There is a balance, a tough balance, but do you think they reached it with this legislation, or is it too heavy-handed?
Hornyak: If you’re a hobbyist, an individual, and you like flying drones, it’s really bad news for you. But if you’re a company interested in establishing a B2B drone startup, there are some favorable aspects to these laws. For example, they opened up part of the banned radio frequencies to allow for 4G video transmissions from drones, which will make even more amazing aerial drone footage possible for some of these business users. As I’ve said, this balancing act that the government is trying to pull off is really erring on the side of caution and on the side of business. So if you’re just an individual who likes to use drones as a hobby, you’ll have to go onto the countryside and hope no one complains.
Penn: I guess we’ll have to wrap it up there, but of course we have one other point of business. There’s no drones flying around The Pink Cow restaurant, but there’s a good chef back there, and we’re paying for some dinner. Are you alright for some dinner tonight?
Hornyak: Yes, please. Can we order by drone?
Penn: We can order by drone. It just won’t deliver. Not yet. Thank you very much for joining us here at What’s the Rumpus? We’re going to try to be back as soon as we can with yet another stimulating guest. But as for today, I’d like to thank Mr. Tim Hornyak, who is our first returned guest, which means he must have done pretty darn good the first time. Thanks a lot.
Hornyak: Thanks for having me.
Penn: See you later.