Warplanes: Japanese Civilian UAVs in China


January 23, 2006: Japanese police raided the offices of the Yamaha Corporation, looking for evidence of illegal export of UAVs to China. However, Yamaha protested that it had been exporting an agricultural UAV, the RMAX, to China, and many other countries, for years.

Yamaha began deliveries of a commercial UAV, the R-50, 18 years ago. It was a remotely controlled helicopter, meant for precisely delivering pesticides on hard to reach Japanese farm fields. Much Japanese farmland is in difficult to reach hillsides and terraces. The helicopter UAV was a cheaper and faster way to apply pesticides.

The R-50 was so successful that, in 1990, an improved model, the RMAX, was delivered. The low altitude (max altitude of 15 feet) model costs $86,000, while a higher flying version goes for up to $230,000. The most expensive system, including ground station, two helicopters and four cameras, cost a million dollars. The current models can stay for 90 minutes at a time, and carry a payload of 66 pounds worth of cameras, batteries and the like. RMAX uses GPS to aid navigation. RMAX can fly up to ten kilometers from its controller (basically a specially equipped laptop computer.)

The Japanese government accuses Yamaha of helping the Chinese steal the RMAX technology for use in military UAVs. RMAX has been used by police and security companies for surveillance. Yamaha says it only sold nine of the RMAX UAVs to China, and then only the basic agricultural models. Nearly 2,000 of the RMAX UAVs are in use, most of them in Japan. However, even the basic RMAX technology is more advanced than anything the Chinese have been able to develop themselves. Japan is becoming more aware of Chinese military technology, and the Chinese military threat to Japan. China is notorious for stealing foreign technology.


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