Pilot schools cash in as drone business takes off in Japan

As Japan positions itself to take advantage of the growing trend in drones, another sector is popping up in the promising market — drone schools.

Industries ranging from agriculture to security are setting their eyes on the benefits of the device. And although the aerial vehicles are capable of autonomous flight, skilled pilots need to be on hand in case something goes wrong.

“The industrial use of drones will grow more to replace some work previously handled by humans,” said Kazunori Fujiwara, a spokesman at the Drone Pilot Association, a Tokyo-based group that promotes pilot education.

“There are still not enough pilots. It’s been just three or four years since drones started spreading, so we need to raise greater awareness,” he said.

The DPA estimates that more than 140,000 pilots will be needed by 2020. The DPA said it does not have a current figure for pilots nationwide but that close to 10,000 people have received training at schools through a DPA-designed education program.

Including those not using the DPA’s curriculum, the number of companies or organizations running drone pilot schools jumped from 43 last June to 154 in March, according to transport ministry data.

Schools generally teach students how to fly the unmanned vehicles based on guidelines drafted by drone-related organizations.

Several courses are available, but most involve two- or four-day plans priced between ¥200,000 and ¥300,000. The courses provide practice time and teach about regulations. After completion, students can receive a certificate showing they took a course and are trained pilots. That makes it easier for them to apply for special permission from the transport ministry.

Without that permission, the types of aircraft that can be used and where they can fly is heavily regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Law.

The law limits flights over crowded residential areas, including major cities and all 23 wards in Tokyo, to drones weighing 200 grams or more. Flights are also limited to a maximum altitude of 150 meters, and banned near airports.

The ministry also requires pilots to have a minimum of 10 hours of experience.

Some people wonder how pilots factor in if drones are capable of autonomous flight through programming and GPS.

Fujiwara says pilots play a crucial role in safety.

“Airline pilots are a good example. Those airplanes mostly fly pre-input routes autonomously. But when something happens, pilots take control” to make sure they land safely, he said.

“This is the same with drones . . . when flying in autonomous mode, a gust of wind could cause some anomalies. If that happens, pilots have to manually handle the situation.”

A drone crash can be dangerous. In November, a drone flying over an event at a park in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture, suddenly crashed into the crowd, injuring six people.

For that reason, schools say piloting skills are the main focus of training.

“Pilots must have a mindset that a drone is in danger of crashing when they are in charge,” said Keita Mizuno, head of a drone flight school in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.

The school, near Shiomi Station on the Keiyo Line, has enrolled about 5,000 people so far and teaches how to control the aircraft in both autonomous mode and manual mode.

Mizuno said a lot of students take lessons as part of their jobs, which are often related to construction or infrastructure maintenance.

One student taking a lesson last week found that flying drones isn’t a game.

“It is harder than I thought,” admited Hiroaki Usui, who was taking lessons as part of his work at a civil engineering firm.

“I play video games, so I thought (flying drones) was kind of similar at first. But once its GPS was turned off, it got out of control if I didn’t operate it correctly, so that was hard.”

Usui said he came from Hokkaido to take a four-day course. His company is seeking drone pilots because it sees potential business from offering pesticide-spraying services in the prefecture.

With business opportunities projected to grow, schools see a rosy future for drones.

Even driving schools are getting in on the act.

“They have been affected by Japan’s low birthrate, together with a higher ratio of young people who aren’t interested in getting a driver’s license,” said Michihiro Kobayashi, a spokesman for the Driving School Drone Consortium.

Driving schools totaled 1,441 in 2006 but declined to 1,330 as of last year.

“Driving schools feel a sense of crisis, so many are exploring the merits of branching out into new businesses,” Kobayashi said.

Established last September, the consortium is encouraging driving schools to introduce drone education programs.

Kobayashi said driving schools are experienced in teaching safety issues and equipped with all the necessary facilities, including classrooms and driving courses that can be adapted to teach drone pilots as well.

But driving schools are not the only ones seeking to diversify.

Nagoya Railroad Co., which also offers bus and aviation services via group firms, plans to open a drone school in June to cultivate a fresh source of profit.

Japan Airlines Co. is also looking to launch a drone pilot business in the future by taking advantage of its aviation know-how.

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