With their lightness and mobility, drones are proving a useful means to check on dangerous areas after disasters and to perform regular safety monitoring.
In the town of Fukushima, Hokkaido, sheer cliffs run along its coast facing the Tsugaru Strait. Collapses of rock and earth often block the nearby roads, and workers frequently are unable to get near to the area to check on the damage.
The local Nakatsuka Construction Co. stepped up to the challenge in August 2014 by using video-recording drones. The drones allowed not just checking on damage after a landslide, but regular monitoring of the cliffs' status.
Company president Tetsuro Nakatsuka notes that the drones give a "bird's eye view" of the areas in question. Helicopters and airplanes cannot maneuver as tightly as a drone, and being expensive and taking time to prepare, they cannot be used except in the event of a major disaster. Drones, however, can be loaded into a car or carried on the back and maneuvered very accurately, and can be used even after relatively small natural disasters.
"Drones can be used to ensure the livelihoods and safety of the area," says Nakatsuka.
After the Kumamoto Earthquake in April, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan used drones and posted the clear video they took on their website. In addition to capturing on video how the quake had brought underground fault lines to the earth's surface, in May the drones were used to take video of the damaged walls of Kumamoto Castle on the request of the Kumamoto Municipal Government. The combination of aftershocks and the rainy season could cause further damage in the area, and the authority says it took the footage to aid the area as it rebuilds.
The authority currently owns two drones, and is training more personnel how to operate them. It says it wants to have drones usable at 10 of its regional bureaus around the country by around the spring of 2018. The authority's Takayuki Nakamura says, "While manned airplanes are good for surveying large areas, drones are not affected by clouds due to their low-altitude flight and can stop in one place, allowing footage to be taken of a particular area."
After the Kumamoto Earthquake, other organizations that used drones to check the damage included insurance companies, NTT West and Kyushu Electric Power Co.
At Mount Hakone, which had a small-scale volcanic eruption last year, the Kanagawa Prefectural Government used drone technology to take footage of the crater, and after the 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake, drone technology was used to help in the search for victims.
Elsewhere, the Aichi Prefectural Police set up an agreement with a drone development company in July last year for use in a large-scale disaster like a Nankai Trough earthquake.
However, according to Tamie Hoshiyama, head of a Japanese drone footage association that conducts drone operator certification in the private sector, "Care is needed when using drones. We are very careful with our use in disaster situations."
She noted the difficulties of drones, saying, "When we drive down to a disaster site and use a drone, we block the road and there is a danger of the drone, which is vulnerable to wind and rain, falling and getting lost. We may also get in the way of government helicopters."
There have also been residents who are critical about drones photographing residents' destroyed houses. Hoshiyama says that, to avoid trouble and safety issues, the association only goes to record areas when there is a request for footage from a government organization.
"I don't want amateurs to fly their own drones in disaster areas," she says.