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Japan has been experimenting to see if drones can be useful in gathering information and using undisrupted communications during major disasters. Officials from Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, and drone experts flew a drone in a high-rise district west of JR Shinjuku Station after establishing an exclusive radio communications network between Shinjuku Central Park, a designated evacuation site for the area, and Kogakuin University, which would become a disaster response headquarters.

Some 3.5 million passengers use JR Shinjuku Station each day. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government estimates about 370,000 people will get stuck around the station if a massive earthquake hits the capital during daytime on a weekday and cripples public transportation systems.

The team monitored the effects of wind peculiar to the high-rise area and electromagnetic waves on the drone’s flight, and checked the transmission of image data from the unmanned aircraft. Also examined were the clearness of the sound of a speaker mounted on the drone to vocally guide people to the evacuation site and its self-flying function using GPS.

According to japantimes.co.jp, the idea of using drones in disaster response operations was raised after Shinjuku Ward officials failed to give efficient evacuation instructions to those having difficulty returning home when the massive earthquake and tsunami hit in March 2011.

Even though ward officials were dispatched to major areas of the ward, they were not able to grasp the entire picture of what was going on and couldn’t share what information they had managed to gather due to disrupted communications.

“We will consider how drones and radio communications networks can be used for people who will be stuck in Tokyo in times of disaster and see what we can do,” a Shinjuku official said.

In January, the Osaka Prefectural Police conducted a drill for a possible major earthquake in areas using drones to gather information, during which rescuers helped people trapped in a collapsed building with a drone taking a video of it and transmitting the images to police headquarters about 12 km away. In August, the prefectural police introduced four drones to be used for rescue operations.