Japanese City Pioneers New Drone-based Warning System

Japanese City Pioneers New Drone-based Warning System

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Picture: Canva
The city of Sendai launches Japan's first-ever drone-based system to alert citizens in hard-to-reach locations of impending disaster.

As we’ve mentioned before here on Unseen Japan, the resilient Tohoku region is no stranger to natural disasters, or getting back up and rebuilding after them. Of course, recovery from the 2011 disaster continues, but this was hardly the last disaster the region faced. Earlier this year, a major offshore earthquake caused more destruction to the southern Tohoku, even damaging Sendai’s iconic equestrian statue of Date Masamune.

Amidst the aftermath and reconstruction, even local governments are putting new systems in place to ensure that more lives can be saved ahead of future disasters. Sendai City is one such municipality piloting an airborne early warning program, the first of its kind in Japan, that uses drones to warn visitors to the city’s beaches of an impending tsunami. Read on to learn more about this new development in disaster warning and response.

Early Warning Systems and their Limitations

Early warning speaker system - tsunami, earthquakes
Picture: Bantam / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Even prior to the 2011 triple disaster, Japan had a national early warning system, one similar in purpose to the US Emergency Alert System. Called J-Alert (Zenkoku Shunji Keihō Shisutemu is its full official name), it launched in February 2007. In a country like Japan, which faces regular earthquakes, typhoons, and other severe weather and natural disasters, this can be a lifesaving tool.

However, disseminating this information to the broadest possible extent can be a challenge. Fixed alert speakers can reach pretty far, and the growth in use of smartphones has made receiving emergency notifications even more convenient and wide-reaching.

But what does one do – as in Sendai – when a municipality has spots like a beach, frequented by surfers, swimmers, and fishers, where one cannot conveniently set up a fixed speaker? Or where people might not even have a smartphone at hand?

Simple: you bring the announcement to them.

A New Tool

Enter Sendai city’s drone-based alert program.


After a six-year-long proof of concept process exploring the best means of disseminating drone-based audio alerts, the city has acquired two drones for this purpose. The drones are 1.2 meter-diameter hexacopters – six-rotored helicopter drones – purpose-built for use in responding to natural disasters.

The drones made by ACSL, a Tokyo-based robotics firm, are controlled over 4G LTE broadband. Upon receiving an alert from the J-Alert system, the drones are programmed to fly at an altitude of approximately 50 meters (approximately 164 feet). One turns north for a round trip of approximately 7 kilometers, the other turns south for a roundtrip of approximately 8 kilometers, returning to base in about 15 minutes.

As they overfly the beaches of Sendai’s coastal Miyagino and Wakabayashi wards, they blast an alert siren, accompanied by a pre-recorded voice alert: “Tsunami keihō happyō. Tadachi ni hinan suru koto” (“A tsunami warning is in effect. Evacuate at once.”)

Interestingly, the drones’ role does not simply end at early warning. They’re also equipped with infrared cameras to better spot casualties after a tsunami’s arrival. They are further able to transmit these location to the city’s Disaster Information Center, located further inland at the Aoba Ward Office just north of Kōtōdai Park in downtown Sendai.

One of ACSL’s disaster response drones of the type now used by Sendai City. (source)

The drones are based on the roof of the Minami-Gamō Treatment Center, a city installation in Miyagino Ward rebuilt in the 2011 tsunami’s wake, whose primary purpose is sewage treatment. It sits astride the Teizan Canal where it meets the mouth of the Nanakita River, Sendai’s northernmost major waterway. It is also a short distance south of the port of Sendai, as well as the city’s boundary with the adjoining town of Shichigahama.

This crossroads of land and water is an ideal location for drones tasked with emergency response. It is not simply speed and saving the lives of civilians that has driven this project. Two municipal employees died during the 2011 triple disaster while out making emergency evacuation announcements, and the city has likewise been invested in minimizing risk to its employees’ lives.

The drones’ testing began on the 19th of September, and their official operations are slated to begin on the 17th of October. They are also slated to take part in the city’s disaster drills slated for early November. As part of the tools at the city’s disposal for tsunami response, we hope that they will better improve its ability to warn early and proactively save lives.

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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