Sony enters drone business with winged vertical takeoff craft

A joint venture called Aerosense will target business users with monitoring and inspection services

An illustration of the vertical takeoff and landing craft to be developed by Aerosense, a drone startup backed by Sony Mobile and Tokyo robotics firm ZMP.

An illustration of the vertical takeoff and landing craft to be developed by Aerosense, a drone startup backed by Sony Mobile and Tokyo robotics firm ZMP.

Sony is getting into the drone business with winged machines that take off vertically and could be used in everything from agriculture to construction.

The electronics giant's mobile arm said Wednesday it will establish a company next month called Aerosense with Tokyo-based robotics firm ZMP.

The joint venture will develop its own drones and offer drone services to business users starting in 2016. The services will include measuring, surveying, observing and inspecting facilities.

Aerosense drones could be deployed in applications such as surveying remote mountain areas or gathering imagery before the construction of a high-rise building.

"They could also be used to inspect farmland to check for damage after a storm hits," a Sony spokeswoman said.

Imagery gathered by the drones will be processed by cloud-based servers. Few details about the winged drone concept illustration, attached to a ZMP press release, were available but more information is expected at an Aerosense event next month.

The winged vertical takeoff and landing craft is only one of several possible drone designs the startup will consider. It will operate in Japan and there are no plans for overseas expansion at the moment.

The Aerosense initiative was pushed by Sony Mobile Communications CEO Hiroki Totoki, who took charge last November in an attempt to spur interest in Sony's Xperia smartphones and revive the struggling business. The firm is trying to launch new business initiatives, especially in the Internet of Things (IoT) field.

Sony Mobile wants to combine its expertise in network technology and mobile device cameras, which are used in iPhones, with ZMP's know-how in autonomous control technology. Along with mobile gaming firm DeNA, ZMP is involved in a project to launch a robot taxi service for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The drone market in Japan remains relatively undeveloped amid a lack of comprehensive government regulations. However, the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant four years ago have spurred researchers to develop survey drones for hazardous sites. Meanwhile, commercial services such as drones that can photograph and follow intruders at shopping malls and other large facilities are being developed.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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