Home > NEWSROOM TOKYO > Feature Reports > Flying into the Future

Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



Mon.-Fri.  20:00 - 20:40 (JST)

Flying into the Future

Jun. 26, 2015

The global market for drones is taking off. Chinese manufacturers are now the leading sellers of unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial use. They’re developing cheaper, easier-to-use drones, and competing to carve out bigger slices of the market.

This may look just like another wedding, but wait and see who brings the rings. The drone also takes videos of the ceremony from the air. The service costs about $300, and it’s getting increasingly popular. The bride says the drone has made her wedding really special.

Drone service provider Liang Wei says drones are perfect for events like weddings. They use GPS to find their location at any given moment, and they’re safe because they can keep their balance.

At a trade fair of start-up companies, visitors flocked to the booth of China’s biggest drone maker, DJI. The firm has been growing fast since its establishment in 2006. Today, analysts say, it holds a 70 percent share in the global commercial drone market.

Other makers in the country are hot on DJI’s tail. EHANG in Guangzhou City is one of them. It produces drones that can be easily operated with the fingertips.

There are also drones controlled by a smartphone app. For takeoff, you just press a button on the screen. When you tilt the smartphone forward, the drone goes forward, and when you tilt it back, the drone comes back. It responds to signals from the smartphone within a radius of a kilometer.

The company takes advantage of the fact that China is a global smartphone production hub. It gets easy access to technologies such as GPS systems and small gyroscopes, and that enables the maker to hold prices down to as low as $600. Its products are attracting domestic as well as international customers.

EHANG Strategic Cooperation Director Li Zhiyuan says the company has made the drones popular among children and elderly people. He says the machines are cheap and easy to handle, so their market will continue to expand in the future.

The firm has teamed up with an online retailer to launch a package delivery service by drones.

Company officials say they already have a basic technology in place despite a number of hurdles. Staffers don’t require any special skill for their job. All they need is to know how to use a smartphone.

Li says the drones will be transportation robots that can be operated extremely easily. He says that if the market for this type of drone matures, it will be a major business opportunity for his company.

Drones may transform our daily lives in the near future, just as smartphones have completely changed the way we live.

NHK World correspondant Naoki Makita joins Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya from Beijing.

Beppu: Naoki, how fast do you think China’s commercial drone industry is likely to expand?

Makita: A private think tank says China’s market for commercial drones will reach $1.8 billion by 2018. That’s a 5-fold jump from the present size. Drones were initially developed for military use. The drone market in China was originally quite limited. But things changed after a leading Chinese manufacturer developed drones that were small, cheap, and easy to use. Drones now have a wide range of applications. These include aerial photography, data collection for map-making and agricultural use. The pilotless aircraft are also used for personal entertainment.

Shibuya: As drones start to fill the skies, I assume there will be a need for regulations. How is the situation in China?

Makita: Governments around the world are now considering setting restrictions on the use of drones. That’s due to a series of incidents-- a drone landed on the White House lawn in Washington. Another was found on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo. In China, authorities haven’t set clear rules on flying drones. One expert says this situation may hurt the development of the country’s drone business.

"There’s a need to create rules for flying drones safely, at low altitude, without causing accidents. Drone makers and related companies will be able to develop and improve their products only after such rules are in place. Without these rules, they won’t be able to set up industry standards, and this will restrict the development of the industry," says Zhao Xiaochuan of the Bejing UAV Union.

The drone business in China has grown over the years partly because no specific laws exist to limit its development. But I think the country needs to create its own rules if it wants to be more competitive in the global market.