Researchers Are Working to Replace Japan’s Rural Workforce With Drones

As the Japanese population shrinks, researchers are investing hopes in an automated workforce.

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May 4 2016, 9:00am

Obara pilots a DJI drone. Image: Emiko Jozuka

"Ever since a mildly 'radioactive' drone landed on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence last year, the Japanese public has had a really negative view towards drones," Shoki Obara, a student from Keio University's drone research lab, told me in Kanagawa prefecture just south of Tokyo.

"We're trying to change the public's perception by sparking their interest in the other ways that drones can be used—for example, in entertainment, racing, or to support healthcare," he added.

Launched in 2015 on Christmas day, the Drone Research Consortium is headed up by Tomoyuki Furutani, a professor of policy management. The group's aims are two-fold: They want to win over the Japanese public's interest in drones and explore how UAVs could be integrated into the Japanese workforce.

"We want to look into how drones could be used to deliver commodities, medication, or even blood to homes or hospitals in rural areas," Furutani explained.

The Japanese population is rapidly decreasing, with a reduction of nearly one million people since 2010 and few measures to accept immigrants en masse. Robotics researchers in the country are turning to everything from robots to drones to prepare for future labor shortages as they contend with an increasingly silver population.

"In the past we used cars or trucks to deliver commodities, but as it will become harder to find people to man these vehicles, we can use drones, as they will be cheaper and faster," said Furutani.

In February 2015, the Japanese government carried out a test exercise where drones were used to deliver food to old people living in rural areas, with hopes to have the service up and running by 2018.

A DJI drone flies in the sky. Image: Emiko Jozuka

As Obara—who took part in the first World Drone Prix in Dubai in March 2016—piloted a small DJI drone in a leafy green area behind the main campus, we discussed how drones might play an important role in closing the rural and urban divide. Yet he concluded that even if there was an app through which products could be selected and drones called for delivery, old people living in the countryside might not own or know how to use a smartphone.

Furutani also wants his university's drone tech to benefit the farming community. He said that farming methods in the US differed to those in Japan, where farmers were used to working in smaller or more mountainous lands.

"In Japan, you could have drones patrolling smaller fields, using sensors and 3D modelling techniques to show farmers how big their oranges or tea leaves growing on steeper slopes have become," he suggested. "It's hard for farmers to go to climb steep mountains so you can send the drones out there to monitor the land at a lower cost—in that way we can optimize agriculture."

Tomoyuki Furutani sits in his office. Image: Emiko Jozuka

In 2017, Japanese startup Spread will open the world's first robotic farm to contend with labour shortages and to experiment with more sustainable ways of growing crops. With the Japanese population depleting, Furutani is also thinking of possible solutions for the eventual loss of human farmers in rural areas in Japan.

"When the farmers are gone, we can make a control center and send out drones and things from there. People could be sent out there during the harvest, or robots could actually do that too," said Furutani.

While there's a level of anxiety over in the US and Europe over robots pinching people's jobs, Furutani remained largely optimistic of the role that robots would play in Japan in the future.

"In Japan, as the labor force is shrinking, robots will be stepping in as our substitutes," he added.

Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.