Photo/IllutrationAn underwater drone glides over coral reefs off Minabe, Wakayama Prefecture, in October. (Taku Hosokawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Humankind is on the dawn of an “industrial revolution” led by underwater drones.

The super-compact, camera-equipped, unmanned submarines can easily be operated remotely from boats, and they are increasingly being used to inspect infrastructure facilities below the surface and to survey deep-sea creatures.

But industry officials say there are many other far-reaching uses for underwater drones, and they hold high expectations for the machines as the technology advances.

“If their functions become more stable and they are available for cheaper prices, underwater drones can make large waves to drastically change the industry,” said Yusuke Tanaka, 40, an official of Osaka-based advertising production company Mediact Co.

In October, Tanaka was taking pictures using an underwater drone during a trial operation off Minabe, Wakayama Prefecture.

Measuring 46.5 centimeters long, 27 cm wide and 12.6 cm high, the Chinese-made submarine can submerge to a depth of 30 meters and is priced at 200,000 yen ($1,773).

The drone is connected through a cable with the controller so it can be operated from a boat. Images taken with a small body-mounted camera appear on a smartphone on the boat in real time.

Conventional ocean development programs and underwater research projects use divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROV) weighing several hundred kilograms to more than 1 ton.

However, propellers and batteries of unmanned submarines have improved and become smaller and lighter, leading them to be called underwater drones.

Airborne drones, now widely used for geographic surveys and agricultural chemical spraying, ushered in the “industrial revolution in the sky.” Underwater drones are expected to take the lead in the “maritime industrial revolution.”

FullDepth Co., a start-up company in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, started renting out its high-performance underwater drone called DiveUnit300 in June.

So far, the model has been used to study fishing reefs, check stationary nets and inspect dams.

DiveUnit300 can run at depths of up to 300 meters, maintain its position with seven propellers, and be operated with a commercially available video game controller and computer monitor.

Its body is 65 cm long, 43 cm wide and 36.3 cm tall, and it weighs 25 kg.

“A great advantage of the underwater drone is that it can be used for deep-sea creature research, periodic infrastructure inspections and other goals that could not be achieved in cost terms in the past,” said Shohei Ito, 31, president of FullDepth.

Six Voice, a Tokyo-based business that sells underwater drones to research institutes and media companies, said it has received over 20 times more inquiries from across Japan this year than it did in 2017.

“There are an unlimited number of places where underwater drones can check dams and ports for possible deterioration, examine the bottom of rivers and do other types of work,” said Shuhei Habu, 42, president of Six Voice. “Their use could spread explosively if more advanced underwater location-awareness technology is developed.”