By TOMOHIRO YAMAMOTO/ Staff Writer
December 4, 2019 at 18:25 JST
NAGOYA--In disaster-prone countries, it's best to be prepared. But this device takes that notion to another level.
A venture firm here is developing a one-man drone prompted by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that allows an occupant to be whisked away by a remote operator to safety in the sky.
The device's design is inspired by the "bamboo copter" that appears in the popular manga Doraemon.
If the company fully realizes the project, the drone would be capable of taking those who are unable to escape disaster conditions to a safe location.
The red “SUKUU” rescue drone is currently being developed at Nagoya-based Prodrone Co., which has an indoor test site for flying.
When the 2.4-meter-high prototype is viewed from the front, its shape resembles a "T." Black propeller blades are attached at the ends of four arms extending from the body above where a person stands while being transported.
The aluminum and carbon fiber device weighs about 100 kilograms. It can fly for up to about six minutes with 80 kg of weight on board. The company aims to have the drone capable of carrying a person weighing a maximum 130 kg for 15 minutes.
"(The development) started by thinking about what we can do (to help)," said company president Masakazu Kono, 61.
Kono was prompted to develop the drone following a TV program broadcast three years ago that looked back on the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
"I wish I could have taken refuge in the sky at the time," one victim of the disaster said during the program.
Kono was shocked upon hearing these words.
He established Prodrone in 2015 after working in telecommunications-related businesses. The company is a rising star in the drone industry, with investments from mobile phone carrier KDDI Corp. and trading company Mitsubishi Corp.
In autumn 2017, Prodrone put a model drone that looked like a bamboo copter on display at an expo in the United States. After making a number of improvements, it unveiled the SUKUU prototype in March.
The name means "to save someone" in Japanese, referring to the device's express purpose of rescuing those who have not managed to escape a disaster and remain stranded in areas threatened by tsunami, fire or flooding.
The company put considerable effort into developing the drone's interactive function. When it approaches a disaster victim, a pilot speaks to the person through a speaker mounted on the device, and a microphone receives responses. Once the person boards the drone, the pilot conducts a rescue operation while talking with the victim, with the face of the pilot shown on a monitor. All of these measures are intended to make the passenger feel secure.
While the SUKUU is not expected to see practical use in Japan in the short term, as it does not meet safety regulations that regard it as an aircraft, Prodrone plans to sell it to developing countries, which have less stringent regulations.
Another hurdle is the charge time. Owing to limitations in the performance of batteries used for the drone, it takes four to five hours to fully charge it for a 15-minute flight.
SUKUU was put on display as a “near-future technology” at Tokyo Motor Show this autumn and drew considerable attention. The company said it will continue to make improvements to the device.
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