In 1893, Japanese entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in creating the world’s first cultured pearls in the coastal city of Toba, Mie Prefecture. Mikimoto changed the world of jewelry and launched a new industry. Today, steps away from the island where Mikimoto created the pearls, Toba is aiming to launch another new industry: flying taxis to offshore settlements. Earlier this year, NEC showed off its eVTOL flying car concept, which hovered 3 meters off the ground for about a minute. These developments are part of a global push to develop autonomous aircraft that could become a $1.5 trillion market by 2040, according to Morgan Stanley Research.
Connecting underserved communities
Kamome Hiroba, or Seagull Square, is a small park and ferry terminal that connects Toba to Toshijima, an island on Ise Bay with a population of about 2,000. It takes about 25 minutes to travel to the island from the port, a journey that could be significantly reduced with the introduction of autonomous air taxis in the next few years. Part of Toba Marine Terminal, Kamome Hiroba is now serving as a test field for drones. Another is Shima City a municipality about 20 kilometers to the south with a number of inlets, bays and inhabited offshore islands. Air taxis could simplify and accelerate transport in Shima, which played host to the Group of Seven (G7) summit in 2016.
Located southwest of Nagoya, Mie Prefecture is known for pearls, the Suzuka Circuit and historical ties to ninja, but it isn’t home to any major cities. So why is it promoting drones and flying taxis? One reason is that as the population ages, it’s more challenging for people to get around. Flying taxis and other forms of air mobility could serve as transport links to people living on outlying islands like Toshijima as well as sparsely populated mountainous areas. They could also perform other functions such as ferrying travelers from one sightseeing spot to another, transporting cargo as a cheaper alternative to traditional freight, and carrying first responders in earthquakes and other disasters when road links are severed.
“Mie Prefecture is like a microcosm of Japan because it has average population and size, primary and secondary industries, and so it has issues facing the other prefectures,” says Mie Prefecture Governor Eikei Suzuki. “If we can solve these issues here, they can be applied throughout Japan.”
Progress through a common roadmap
Aside from Toba and Shima, Mie Prefecture is promoting the municipalities of Minamiise and Kumano as air mobility testing fields, meaning they’re ready to start trials. Another factor that makes Mie ideal for testing flying cars is its alliance with Fukushima Prefecture in northern Japan. With its rich historical legacy including samurai history, natural resources and its role as the grand start of the torch relay of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, Fukushima is attracting more and more interest as a travel destination and business site. It has launched the Fukushima Robot Test Field for flying cars, disaster-response, underwater exploration and inspection robots as well as various other unmanned vehicles, part of the Fukushima Innovation Coast. The field is intended to be a world-class RD center, proving ground and pilot-training center for various technologies.
Mie and Fukushima aren’t the only prefectures working to develop a new industry—Aichi, Osaka and Tokyo are also paving the way for flying taxis. Meanwhile, Japanese businesses, organizations and governments are working together to pave the way for the widespread use and social acceptance of flying vehicles, which are defined as aircraft that are electrified, autonomous and capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL).
The government’s Future Investment Strategy 2018 is aimed at enhancing the productivity of the Japanese economy with an aim to realizing Society 5.0, defined by the Cabinet Office as “a human-centered society that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by a system that highly integrates cyberspace and physical space.” The strategy document set a goal to establish a roadmap to make the world’s first flying car and to promote mobility as a service (MaaS).
Entities such as the Public-Private Council for Air Mobility Revolution include academics, researchers, public-sector bodies, major airline, logistics, tech and manufacturing companies, as well as startups such as SkyDrive, which was founded by ex-Toyota engineers. As they discuss business models and technical standards, members envision the start of commercial flying vehicle services in the 2020s and the expansion of practical use in the 2030s.
“Japan’s biggest competitive strength in the effort to develop flying vehicles is that our stakeholders have the same roadmap and the same vision, and each is playing its role accordingly,” says Hiromichi Hanabusa, head of the Aviation Safety and Security Planning Division in the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, a member of the council and part of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. “There are many challenges to be solved such as standards and operator licenses, but based on the roadmap, we would like to solve these issues while collaborating with the public and private sectors.”
Making flying taxis a reality
One Japanese startup that is keen to stake out its own space in the nascent industry is Tokyo-based Aeronext. It was founded in 2017 as an RD startup by Yoichi Suzuki, an aerial photography expert who often faced problems when his balloon cameras were buffeted by winds. He developed a patented center-of-gravity control system called 4D GRAVITY that won the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Award at Japan’s Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) tech show in 2018. Suzuki, now CTO of Aeronext, has applied this know-how to conventional drones to improve their stability for photography and other purposes. CEO Keisuke Toji, an expert in intellectual property management, helped establish a licensing system to make 4D GRAVITY standard technology for industrial drones worldwide. The company recently incorporated it into a passenger drone concept.
At the latest edition of CEATEC, Aeronext showed off a one-third scale model of its Flying Gondola concept for an autonomous, single-seater passenger drone. Like the cabins on a Ferris wheel, the cabin always stays level with the ground for maximum passenger safety and comfort. Promotional images show the passenger zipping through the sky while enjoying a drink and admiring the scenery below.
The remote-controlled craft features eight rotors mounted on two wings for VTOL, as well as panoramic cabin windows. The wings tilt during horizontal flight, moving independently of the cabin. The company is also planning to develop versions of the craft that will be able to carry two or more people.
“Our drones are so stable that we can deliver liquid products like bowls ramen noodles without spilling them,” says Natsuko Ito, chief marketing officer at Aeronext. “We’d like to use our technology to help in the creation of a drone-based society.”
To learn more about the Public-Private Council for Air Mobility Revolution’s roadmap for air mobility, click here.
To learn more about robot technologies in Fukushima, click here.
To learn more about Aeronext, click here.