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Volcanic observation project by Autonomous-flight Unmanned Helicopter at Mt. Usu wins The 33rd Ichimura Prizes in Industry - Contribution Prize

May 09, 2001

Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. (YMC) has recently been the recipient of the prestigious Ichimura Prizes in Industry - Contribution Prize, given in recognition of outstanding contributions in technological development.
The award recognizes YMC's development of a helicopter with complete autonomous flight capability run off programmed commands from a ground-based personal computer, which was used for observation flights over the active volcano of Mt. Usu in Hokkaido during its eruption last year.

The Ichimura Prizes are administered by "The New Technology Development Foundation (Ichimura Foundation)," which was founded through the will of the late Kiyoshi Ichimura, founder of the Sanai Group. The purpose of the awards is to give recognition to corporate leaders, academic groups or technological researchers who foster the development of new advances in Japanese science and technological that contribute to the progress of science, technology, industry, culture and other aspects of social welfare. In this sense it is often referred to as Japan's Deming Prize.
Other than the Main Prize, the foundation also awards a Ichimura Prizes in Industry and the Ichimura Prizes in Technology for achievements in the academic science field. Until now, these prizes have been given to outstanding Japanese scientists and researchers who have made world-class scientific achievements.

The award ceremony for the 33rd Ichimura Prizes was held on April 27 at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo presided over by His Imperial Highness Prince Mikasanomiya Tomohito, at which three companies received "The Ichimura Prizes in Industry - Meritorious Achievement Prize," five companies "The Ichimura Prizes in Industry - Contribution Prize," one group received "The Ichimura Prizes in Technology - Special Prize," one group "The Ichimura Prizes in Technology - Meritorious Achievement Prize" and five groups "The Ichimura Prizes in Technology - Contribution Prize."

While research and development of autonomous flight systems for unmanned helicopters is presently being conducted at universities and research centers in numerous countries around the world, the Yamaha Motor development team used its industrial-use unmanned helicopter "RMAX" as a base flight unit and mounted it with GPS sensors, gyro sensors and other equipment to achieve the world's first practical success in high-accuracy autonomous flight based on programmed commands from a personal computer on the ground and including capabilities like fully automated return-flight function even when shortwave signals are cut off. At the request of the Public Works Research Institute of Japan's Ministry of Construction (former), this system was successfully used in April of last year for disaster-mitigation observation flights over the erupting volcano Mt. Usu, where it was able to get clear pictures with its video cameras unattainable by manned helicopters in the no-flight zones, showing things like topographical changes, volcanic ash accumulation and mudslide conditions. The information gathered in this way then contributed greatly to the subsequent disaster relief activities.

This award marks the third Ichimura Prize received by YMC, following the 27th Ichimura Prizes in Industry - Contribution Prize in 1995 for the development of the PAS electro-hybrid bicycle and the 29th Ichimura Prizes in Industry - Contribution Prize for development of "Y-HOT" gas engine heat reclaiming system in 1997.


Specifications for the Autonomous-flight Unmanned Helicopter (RMAX base)


Main rotor


3,115 mm

Tail rotor


545 mm

Overall length


3,630 mm (including rotor)

Overall width


2,000 mm

Overall height


1,220 mm



approx. 93 kg




Liquid-cooled 2-stroke, horizontally opposed



246 cc



21 ps

Starting system


Electric starter



gasoline-oil premix


Continuous flight capability


Approx. 1.5 hr.

Max. fuel capacity


11 liters

Flight speed


15~20 km/h

Flight elevation


30~150 meters above ground

Observation range


2 km

Equipment mounted


navigational-use CCD cameras (3)

Main Technical Features

1) High-accuracy flight control
- Through the use of sensor fusion technology that makes use of the physical characteristics of the GPS sensor and a gyro sensor, high-accuracy speed and positioning data can be calculated. The result achieves both highly accurate hovering performance (within one meter of the designated coordinates in windless conditions) and very agile maneuvering performance.

2) Easy operation
- Maneuvering the helicopter accurately and on a real-time basis through 3-dimensional space is easily performed by means of mouse operation on the monitor display of a personal computer on the ground. Also, by selecting flight coordinates on digital maps on the computer display the helicopter can be made to fly automatically to the selected coordinates, and by selecting a succession of coordinates it is easy to create a programmed flight course.

3) High reliability
- Because the system is equipped with self-monitoring functions that detect any malfunctions in the communications signals, etc., and because data regarding the ground point of flight departure (lift-off) is automatically recorded, should some malfunction like a break in communications signals occur, the helicopter can be made to automatically return to its point of lift-off and land intact.

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