Photo: Tian Yu, CEO of drone maker Yuneec Technology, demonstrates their Breeze drone at NEST 2017.

Over 100 million viewers who tuned into the NFL Super Bowl game this year witnessed a display of hundreds of illuminated drones flying in formation. It was a breathtaking stunt that seemed to portend a future in which drones become a part of everyday life, but the fact is there’s a lot of work to do, particularly in the areas of regulation, safety and privacy.

Ben Marcus, CEO of AirMap

Ben Marcus, CEO of AirMap, said “drones are much more similar to a kite without a string than a 747” when it comes to the regulatory context

These issues were the focus of a drone session at New Economy Summit (NEST) 2017 in Tokyo last week that brought together experts from around the world. Tian Yu, CEO of drone maker Yuneec Technology, launched the session with a demonstration of the Breeze, a 385-gram quadcopter with a 4K-resolution camera, which hovered above the panelists’ heads. Controlled via a smartphone app, the drone can operate in Selfie Mode as well as Orbit Mode, which makes it revolve around the user. Such selfie drones are one of many potential applications in the growing drone market, which is expected to grow to $127 billion in enterprise uses alone in the coming years, according to PWC.

“Drones have great potential to bring all kinds of incredible products and services to people in their daily lives,” said panelist Ben Marcus, CEO of AirMap, a California-based startup founded in 2014. AirMap is pioneering the field of unmanned traffic management (UTM), a kind of drone air traffic control that allows interactions between users and airspace managers. AirMap already underpins about 100,000 drone flights every day because its UTM platform, which works with features such as geofencing to keep drones out of no-fly areas, already supports some of the largest drone makers.

Gajan Mohanarajah, co-founder and CEO of Rapyuta Robotics, said, “robots today are like islands, but they should be social."

Gajan Mohanarajah, co-founder and CEO of Rapyuta Robotics, said, “robots today are like islands, but they should be social.”

The advent of UTM comes amid intensifying efforts to build a regulatory framework that can balance both public safety and the growth of the drone economy. Backers hope UTM is the right technology to convince authorities that drones are safe for operation in populated areas, thus opening the door to  myriad airborne services such as package delivery.

“The civil aviation regulators around the world have taken charge of managing this activity, but I think drones are much more similar to a kite without a string than they are to a 747,” said Marcus, who’s also a licensed pilot. “We need to persuade the regulators that we can take this existing safety record and extend these capabilities into more densely populated areas.”

Gajan Mohanarajah, CEO of Rapyuta Robotics, a Tokyo-based engineering company building modular autonomous robots and cloud connectivity for smart machines, said that in order to accelerate adoption, drone companies could learn from the experiences, including the failures, of the aviation and autonomous driving industries. He also urged greater capacity for communication between drones and other smart machines. “Robots today are like islands, but they should be social,” he said.

Takashi Toraishi, president of Rakuten's New Service Development Company

Takashi Toraishi, president of Rakuten’s New Service Development Company, said “the key thing is how we can work with the regulatory side and society”

Takashi Toraishi, president of the New Service Development Company of Rakuten, noted that Rakuten is pursuing negotiations with authorities to allow deliveries of goods by drone in Japan, where flights over urban areas are currently restricted. Regular delivery service would follow trials that Rakuten has held in special zones in regional Japan.

“The Japanese government has proved to be supportive of drones,” said Toraishi, who recently helped launch Rakuten AirMap, a joint venture between the two companies dedicated to providing UTM solutions to drone users in Japan. “The key thing is how we can work with the regulatory side and also society.”

Yuneec’s Yu was sanguine about the prospect of drones carrying people. In a promo video, Yuneec showed off plans for passenger-carrying drones that could be flown manually or automatically. While this scenario seems like science fiction, Dubai has launched a program to start single-seater passenger drone services as early as this year.

“The technology is ahead of the regulation, but we will make it happen anyway,” said Yu, another licensed pilot. “This is coming and nobody can stop it. You just need to be patient to make it happen in the real world. We’d like to work with AirMap and Rakuten so together, let’s make it happen!”


Read more reports on NEST 2017 here.