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GPS Autonomous-flight UnmannedHelicopter for Observation of Mudslide Conditions Around Erupting Mt. Usu in Hokkaido, Japan

April 26, 2000

Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., at the request of the Public Works Research Institute of the Ministry of Construction of Japan, has begun conducting autonomous-flight observation of topographical and geological conditions in the area around Mt. Usu in Hokkaido using a Yamaha industrial-use unmanned helicopter equipped with GPS and, video and still cameras. Volcanic activity has continued at a high level since Mt. Usu's eruption earlier this month and flight by manned aircraft is presently under restriction.
This is the first autonomous-flight observation project of its type ever undertaken in Japan, and possibly in the world. Autonomous flight systems are presently under development at universities and research organizations around the world, but this represents the first time that such a system has been put to practical use out of the visual range of the operators.


Since April 20, a team of employees from Yamaha's Aeronautic Operations has been on the scene in Hokkaido with a Yamaha helicopter specially outfitted for observation purposes. They have been conducting observation flights under the supervision of a team specializing in landslide measures. The observation flights are mainly surveying the area around the Itaya River to provide information for mudslide measures.
In the Mt. Usu area, mudslides resulting from the volcanic ash build-up from the volcanic eruption have already been observed. And, as the volcanic activity in the area continues, it is feared that large-scale mudslides are imminent. It is hoped that an autonomous-flight unmanned helicopter to observe the build-up of volcanic ash and boulders and other volcanic projectiles will add to the accuracy of data available for giving warnings or considering preventative measures against mudslides and landslides. These unmanned-autonomous-flights are being conducted in areas where manned flight presently is prohibited.
The basic helicopter being used for these flights is the industrial-use unmanned helicopter Yamaha Aero Robot "RMAX," which is normally operated by remote control within the operator's range of vision. To accommodate the long-distance flights necessary for the observation work at the volcano sight, a GPS system and control box is mounted on the helicopter to enable use of an autonomous-flight program. This and other modifications made it possible to completely automate flight over the roughly 4-kilometer round trip from the observation center to the volcano and around the survey area. Also, an auxiliary fuel tank was added to extend the continuous-flight capability to one hour or more, and other special equipment such as auxiliary remote control capacity was employed as well. For the helicopter's observation function a video and a still cameras are mounted along with three small-size cameras for navigational purposes. Images from these cameras are sent from the helicopter to the control center on a real-time basis, where they are viewed on a four-window spilt screen monitor.

Comment from Senior General Manager Kazuo Uchiyama, Yamaha Aeronautic Operations

"This is the first time not just for us but in the history of Japanese disaster management that an autonomous-flight helicopter has been used for observation operations. The unmanned helicopter makes it possible to conduct observation activities in areas too dangerous for manned flight, but we came prepared for the fact that the flights would be conducted under very harsh conditions around the erupting Mt. Usu, including not only volcanic ash, flying rocks and other projectiles thrown up by the volcano but also highly unstable air flows and high temperatures. Up until this point the observation flights have been even more effective than we expected and we hope to continue collecting visual data that will contribute to the disaster relief and prevention measures."


Main specifications for the autonomous-flight GPS helicopter (RMAX-base)


Main rotor diameter


3,115 mm

Tail rotor diameter


545 mm

Overall length


3,630 mm (including rotor)

Overall width


800 mm

Overall height


1,220 mm

Operating weight


Approx. 95 kg






Liquid-cooled 2-stroke horizontal opposed-type




Power output



Starting system


Electric start



Gasoline-oil mixture




Max. flying time


60 min. (with standard 6 liters fuel tank)
100 min.(with standard 6 liters fuel tank plus 5 liters auxiliary fuel tank)

Flight speed


15 to 20 km/h

Flight height


Ground height 30 to 150 m

Photographing equipment


Video camera Single-lens reflex camera

GPS Autonomous-flight unmanned helicopter Imaginative Drawing

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