Japanese firm developing hands-free 'flying umbrella'

Asahi Power Service president Kenji Suzuki flying a prototype of the drone umbrella, in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture.
Asahi Power Service president Kenji Suzuki flying a prototype of the drone umbrella, in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture.PHOTO: YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

OYAMA, JAPAN (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - An information technology company is developing a drone-based "flying umbrella" that users do not have to hold.

Essentially a small unmanned aircraft, the umbrella utilises artificial intelligence to hover above users as they walk.

The technology is the work of Asahi Power Service, a company based in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, that develops telecommunication systems, among other services.

The company is currently working on upgrades to a prototype while conducting indoor test flights, with the aim of putting the product into practical use as early as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Company President Kenji Suzuki, 40, proposed the project three years ago after thinking it was "bothersome to open an umbrella when your hands are full".

Under the Civil Aeronautics Law, drones must maintain a distance of at least 30m from people or buildings in towns and other public venues. Therefore, the company expects the flying umbrella to initially be used in private environments.

The company successfully flew a prototype using mesh materials for the canopy, which enables wind generated by the drone's propeller to pass through the canopy and stabilise the device in the air.

Last summer, the company began development of a system that recognises users and follows them overhead by installing an AI-based camera in an umbrella.

However, many challenges remain. The current prototype, which measures about 1.2m in diameter and weighs about 5kg, can only fly for five minutes. Moreover, the prototype cannot automatically follow users unless they walk very slowly. It also can only be used as a parasol rather than a rain umbrella as it is made of mesh.

"Although there are some regulatory obstacles, we'll proceed with development of the drone umbrella with hopes that one day, it'll be a common sight in city streets," Mr Suzuki said.