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The concept of “air mobility,” where packages and even people can be transported through flying drone vehicles, is an important new field where Japan can play a part in developing the necessary technology, according to government officials who have been closely involved in drafting a national blueprint for how they would operate.
The technical challenges are themselves daunting. The vehicles present the complexities of a self-driving car that must operate in three dimensions, while the image of a sky filled with machines buzzing overhead raises quality-of-life issues.
Two government ministries, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the Ministry of Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), have come together to study the positives as well as potential risks.
At a recent press briefing at the Foreign Press Center of Japan, two officials laid out what they termed “Heading towards the Air Mobility Revolution.”
With the technology moving quickly, they said, the first regular service could come by 2023 with full commercialization by the 2030s.
“This is the first of its kind in the world where the public and private sector have come together to create a roadmap regarding flying cars,” said Kenji Mikami, Director at METI’s Digital Strategy Manufacturing Industries Bureau. He added that these vehicles would likely be autonomous, electric and be able to take off and land like helicopters, making them highly reliable and safe.
“With this new technology, you can move whenever you want from point to point. This is the realization of a highly sophisticated mobility society, which will be a driver for further development of Japanese industry as well as helping to solve social issues facing Japan, as well as the rest of the world,” he said.
These vehicles can be highly suitable for high-tech taxis in urban areas, Mikami said, noting that since they are in the air, building new road infrastructure is not necessary.
Environmental issues might slow public adoption of the technologies, Mikami added. “The image that there will be objects flying over your head means that we will need to have a high level of social acceptance,” he added.
An early area of focus within Japan, therefore, will be using them in rural areas, at first to deliver goods in remote areas and then either for enhanced tourism or for assistance in times of disasters or medical emergencies. This latter use is highlighted in a METI video on how a “flying ambulance” could respond much more quickly than traditional vehicles.
“Instead of going right away to the densely populated areas, it will be easier to start by carrying goods and people in mountainous areas first,” said Keita Arakaki, Division Head, Aviation Safety and Security Planning Division, Japan Civil Aviation Bureau at MLIT. “This is the vision in our road map. “
Last year the government established a private-public council on “Air Mobility Revolution,” bringing together government ministries and academics, along with a wide range of private retailer, transport and high-tech firms.
Input from those companies will be used to determine the initial steps. Mikami said that the roadmap was not just a tentative program, it represents a commitment. “We will work to overcome challenges and all our effort will be made on achieving our target, particularly the target of achieving commercialization by 2023,” he said.
Both officials agreed that absolute safety would be vital to have a successful rollout. “When it comes to flying cars, there is no intermediate level involved. You have to go all the way to attain the required safety before you can begin utilizing a flying car,” said Arakaki.