Researchers build unmanned aircraft to scan Japan’s most forbidding locales

Environmental monitoring UAV

Researchers from the University of Tokyo and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. have developed an unmanned aircraft to provide detailed aerial images of wetlands, mountains and other natural areas that are difficult for humans to reach.

The new unmanned aircraft will help researchers observe slight changes in nature with the camera attached to its body, which can take up to 400 color images during a single flight, capturing objects on the ground as small as 2 square centimeters in size. The research team plans to use their invention to monitor ecosystems across the country.

The aircraft — about 1.7 meters wide and weighing around 2 kilograms — can be folded and carried in the trunk of an automobile. Flight routes can be programmed into the global positioning system (GPS) of the craft, which flies at an altitude of 80 to 150 meters for up to 30 minutes on a single charge.

To date, researchers have often been forced to give up on aerial photography from helicopters and airplanes due to bad weather. Moreover, they have been unable to obtain detailed photographs because they had to avoid flying at low altitudes for safety reasons.

During the test flight last month, the unmanned aircraft successfully took photographs of small pale pink polygonum flowers in the Yawata wetlands in Hiroshima Prefecture, where a number of aquatic plants have been lost over the past few years. The area has been turned into grasslands after the prefectural government started a water channel development project in the wetlands in fiscal 2007.

“The daily operating cost of unmanned aircraft is 1 million yen, about 10 percent of the expense of flying conventional airplanes. We can see the effectiveness of the project, and it will be helpful (for the government) to improve policy efficiency by adjusting measures if needed,” said developer and University of Tokyo professor Shinji Suzuki.