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Fixed-Wing Drones Own a Niche in Japan
By Brad Frischkorn

While the advent of the Drone Age has seen the proliferation of multi-rotor machines of various sizes and shapes, 'old-style' fixed-wing drones are still in demand. In fact, when it comes to setting up temporary communication links in remote, inaccessible areas, the tech gear of choice is clear for researchers at Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT).

The Yokosuka-based institute specializes in preparing for scenarios in which re-establishing telecom links in regions hit by natural disasters and other emergencies is important.

Such an event occurred in March 2011, when a massive tsunami hit Japan's nuclear power station in Fukushima Prefecture, cutting off whole communities from access to both electricity and phone use. The U.S. military moved in quickly under the auspices of "Operation Tomodachi" to deliver hundreds of tons of food and supplies to victims, as well to as to help set up comm services.

Their answer to the communication problems was an innocuous fixed-wing drone weighing just 15 pounds or so.

"Operation Tomodachi was very instructive; without local power, not even the rescue teams could communicate," says Dr. Ryu Miura, head of the NICT's wireless network research facility. "The U.S. forces had a good, practical answer for this problem; the drone functions as a flying telecom tower, enabling radio waves to be transmitted back and forth."

Six years later, the 2.8 meter-long, U.S.-built Puma AE is the NICT's drone of choice for emergency duty.

"There are clear advantages to a fixed-wing design for this type of work, including the long wing, which provides the lift necessary to keep the aircraft aloft for two to four hours at a time," says Dr. Miura. "This greatly exceeds the duration of any current multi-copter."

The Puma AE sports other advantages over more futuristic, multi-prop drone designs, including lots of cargo space for electronics. Its fuselage and wings are also composed of super-strong epoxy and Kevlar, and designed to partially come apart in the event of a rough landing, reducing the danger of critical damage. Most multi-copters can be wrecked by one bad touch-down.

Dr. Miura and his colleagues are currently busy demonstrating the Puma and its capabilities to municipalities at high risk of exposure to earthquakes, landslides, floods, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters. But awareness is slow to come along, he says.

"Technology like this is not going to be in high demand until something terrible actually happens," he says. "But we are hopeful that by showing the unit to fire stations, police departments, hospitals and disaster relief organizations, they will know who to call if and when the time arrives," he says.

At a cost of about ¥40 million ($357,000) per copy, the Puma AE is not cheap, but does come with software, training, and support service. Mr. Miura sees spot rental as the likely option for most clients.

Puma AE drone

"There are clear advantages to a fixed wing design, including the long wing, which provides the lift necessary to keep the aircraft aloft for two to four hours at a time." –Dr. Ryu Miura

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