As the largest wireless carrier in Japan, NTT Docomo, understandably has a large research and development operation to keep abreast of the latest advancements in technology. Docomo often collaborates with American based companies, like Google, in R&D projects. And just like how America’s largest wireless carrier, Verizon, has begun embracing drone technology, so too has Docomo. While Docomo uses drones in many facets, the R&D department was challenged with finding a way to make a drone safer and less invasive to people.
During the 2017 Digital Content Expo at the Miraikan in Odaiba, Docomo unveiled an entertainment drone concept. Taking a cue from the growing popularity of LED drone light shows, Docomo developed what they call the first ever spherical flying drone display. The team encased a microdrone in a spherical cage that measure 34.6 inches in diameter. The cage enables the drone to fly among people and obstacles without posing a risk of injuries or property damage. Attached to the outside of the cage are 8 vertical LED strips that rotate rapidly. When the drone takes flight and the LED strip spin, the lights blur into images such as words, logos, or even a globe. Unlike a drone light show that usually uses hundreds of drones to create images, Docomo can put on a show with a single drone.
Using the concept of a spherical drone, Docomo’s R&D department wanted to expand and make an even safer drone. On November 8, 2021, Docomo announced that they had “developed a blade-free, blimp-type drone equipped with a high-resolution video camera that captures high-quality video and full-color LED lights glow in radiant colors.” One of the safety concerns with drones is that the rotors on them can be very dangerous. These same rotors also create a lot of noise pollution and require a substantial amount of battery power to operate. By removing the blades entirely, Docomo has come up with a drone that is safer, quieter, and has the potential for longer flight times.
Docomo first revealed the blimp drone prototype in 2019 as a beachball sized, silver mylar balloon that is propelled by ultrasonic vibrations. A thin wire hoop vertically encircles the balloon. At the east and west positions of the hoop sits what the company calls “an ultrasonic module that emits wind by minute vibration, so it is safe for people to touch.” The newest version has a LED bulb inside of a white balloon so the entire drone glows. At the bottom of the drone is a camera that can record high quality videos. Another improvement is a more robust propulsion system and communication network that gives an operator greater flight control.
Docomo hasn’t said whether or not the helium based balloon can fly longer than a battery powered drone. One certain thing is that the blimp drone is safe and far quieter than a drone with rotors. Docomo plans to have the drones available by March of the coming fiscal year. The company doesn’t see these as replacements for traditional drone shows, but as an enhancement that could be used indoors and safely around people.