You may already be aware of this, the “Setouchi (瀬戸内)” Japan’s inland sea lie across 450 kilometers from east to west, with 727 islands of various sizes. Among these islands, 138 islands (approximately 20%) are inhabited. The largest island is about the same size as Singapore, and 140,000 people live there. On the other hand, the smallest island is Teshima (豊島), which is a part of Ehime prefecture (愛媛県), and its size is only 0.4 square kilometers. There is only one family that lives here. In the Setouchi area, there are 49 small islands with a small population of less than 100, and most of these islands to not have hospitals.
I once visited Ogishima (男木島) for volunteer work. The population of the island was 195. In last year, 3 families moved in there and the island’s school restarted after 7 years. Now there are 6 students. There is no Wal-Mart here, but the nature and life is wonderful. I was completely fascinated by those attractions.
Although there is abundant nature, there are some difficulties in life. In most areas in Japan, when we order some packages, it would be delivered in the next day. But here, that is impossible. Even if you needed something in a hurry, you cannot receive it soon. The only thing you could depend on would be the boat. Residents of the island have various attempts based on the wisdom of their long life in the island, but there are time when circumstances become serious. it would take time to receive it. The only thing you could depend on would be the boat. Residents of the island have various attempts based on the wisdom of their long life in the island, but there are situations you need to be prepared to be able to cope with.
It was about a year ago that I found out that Amazon would be starting a service to deliver packages using drones. Why didn’t I think of it? But they are an international company that sells 80 billion dollars a year. It would take years till they start service in an isolated island with no more than 200 residents. The only way was to start the service myself. I called out to my friends for their support, and we started the preparation.
The first thing we needed was a special airframe that could carry the cargo. The airframe for the demonstration was developed by K&S Co., Ltd. This company has developed radio-controlled helicopters for a long time. I visited this company every day to provide feedback on the results of the demonstration, and together we examined the design for airframe to be used in the actual service. In Japan, there are many small manufacturers such like this. There are about 1,000 parts used in iPhone6, but about 50% of those parts are made by Japanese manufacturers. The advantage of having an item developed in Japan is that you can carry out the development while working closely with professional manufacturers and engineers who support these parts. If you were a hardware engineer, you might know that there are many things that cannot be told through a catalogue. If you work in a huge global corporate, you may be able to visit the parts-makers in a business class. But things would be different for most startups. In Japan, even a small startup like us would be able to realize an airframe in the spec needed.
We collected the funds for developing the demonstration airframe through Crowdfunding. We started at the end of last September, and we were able to collect our fund by the end of November. By the way, K&S developed the airframe for us on trust. The money we collected through Crowdfunding wouldn’t arrive until after February. K&S supported us in so many ways so that the service would realize as soon as possible. This is the passion of small Japanese businesses. This project can go on because of the passion of many people.
The route in which we plan to start our service is a maximum of 8 kilometers from the main land to the remote island, and all of it is seaborne. You may think it would have less risk in crashing than on land, but there are many obstacles on the sea that does not exist on land. First of all, the weather condition such as the wind changes rapidly and is unpredictable. Intended attacks can be considered as well. The most likely is jamming. If the guidance radar or the GPS were jammed on a normal drone, it would cause complete black out. In such events, the drone would have no choice but have an emergency landing. But this is not possible on sea. Our drone needs to have the ability to autonomously return to the nearest staging base without external support in case of such happenings. If this does not work, it would have to land on water. We would need to make the airframe so that it would slowly land on water with a parachute or something, and float on the water. Collecting the drone is also an issue. We are currently sounding a sea taxi company for a business tie up regarding this matter.
We are planning to develop our business in the following two areas.
Our drone needs a high autonomic function, and we need to install a flight controller and ground control system for this. Unfortunately, there is no system that meets our needed level in Japan at the moment. We have used the system of DJI, a company in Hong Kong, in our demonstration. Another major company is Airware. However, we found some issues in these systems.
One issue is the problem of optimization. What we want to realize a very simple system, to deliver the package to a neighbor across the sea safely. Airware conducts co-development with NASA and its perfection level is surprisingly high. However, it costs a great deal to maintain such advanced system. In our service, we do not need the speck for space exploitation or for military purpose.
Another issue is that the most important part is made into a black box, and we cannot customize it to our needs. In our service, the drone is a tool to meet the needs of the customer. The success and failure of a logistics service depends on how flexible the operation can be. It is defiantly necessary to be a kind of system that the engineer can apply detailed solutions according to the user’s needs.
I am a system engineer, so I know that the open source had contributed to change the world in these 15 years. I respect the product of corporate activity, and understand that business competitiveness induces progress in the world. However, as a fact, business competition disrupts development resources and because of the license, it would be difficult to choose a suitable combination to meet the needs.
That is why we plan to develop the flight controller under open source, in this project. Currently, several drone development communities collaborate with the Linux Foundation to develop a unified platform, which is called by the “Dronecode”. I also plan to use this platform. Our system assumes a special flight condition, and it would have high autonomous flight ability. I am sure that we would be able to contribute to the community with our deliverables.
Another thing that you might be interested in is the Aviation law. The U.S. Congress is requesting FAA to submit a draft for commercial use of drones by September, but according to the rumor at the end of last year, there is a possibility that a pilot license may be required for the operation. An unmanned autonomous flight would be a must for the drone to create impact to the world of logistics. One thing for sure is that this new technology has created confusion in the traditional law system. Even after the draft is submitted, considering the discussion period after that, the actual operation would be a few years later. This issue should be a debate here in Japan also.
On the other hand, our service will fly above the sea. This is an area where the Maritime Traffic Safety Act would be applied, but the regulation applies for only 50 meters and under. The Civil Aeronautics Act is applicable for only 150 meters and above. Our drone would fly in between these areas without passing through any private property, from port to port. There are no regulations for us here. In other areas, there would be no meaning for a drone to fly over a plain ocean. But as I mentioned in the beginning, here we have 138 islands with people living in it. The area of Setouchi has a market worth the service and here the legal problems could be solved. It is a rare area seen even in a global scale.
Like this, our services would improve the convenience of the island’s residents. The sea rescue is actually one more reason why I want to fly a drone across the sea. That is why we carried a med kit in our demonstration flight. Accident at sea is very common for people like us who come and go between islands. It might be surprising but 90 percent of sea accidents happen not at sea at near the coast. Even in this particular area of Setouchi, sadly, there are many fatalities every year due to accidents while swimming. Even in accidents that took time to reach by boat, a quick response is possible if a drone could just drop a life ring. I believe that the existence of such system to provide quick response could cause a change to sea accidents. Decreasing the number of even one victim at sea is defiantly needed to enhance the attractions of this area composed of islands.
As you can see, there is a natural environment suitable for development in this Setouchi area we conducted the demonstration experiment in. There is a development project by open source. There are people who are waiting for the service. Everything that a drone developer is here. Here, there is a perfect environment for drone developers. That is why I would like to call out to you. Come and join us in our development. We hope to create an environment in the Setouchi area that is open for not just our business, but widely to the drone developer’s community.
At the end of last year, we opened a communication space for creators in Ogishima. We renovated an unoccupied house of the island, and run it by donations of the users. I also plan to make a shared house for long-term stayers.
I hope that the Setouchi area will be the place of origin of innovation that drone developers from all over the world would come to visit. I am a system engineer, and I know that any great innovation could start from a small garage or a small community. I love this ocean and these islands. I want to realize a comfortable and safe life while living in these islands. That is why I would like to work together with innovators who dream of developing a drone for the various lives of various people living in various areas of the world, here at this place.
Is this an outrageous dream? But in real life, sometimes the unexpected come into reality. Until a year ago, I never even thought of a drone flying across the ocean from this port. And that realized just a few days ago.