Move over, PlayStation: Sony gets into the drone business

Sony will offer drone services to businesses with a new joint venture launching in early August. 

Jamey Jacob/AP/File
An unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, flies at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013.

The company known for Walkmans and PlayStations is reaching a bit higher with its newest venture.

Sony announced Wednesday a joint venture with a Tokyo-based startup to start a drone subsidiary that will utilize technology from its mobile device division to market drone capabilities to businesses.

Sony and ZMP Inc., a company that specializes in autopilot technology, are set to launch Aerosense in early August, which will use drones to inspecting aging infrastructure and survey land that is difficult to access.

This type of drone activity is similar to that which is getting exemptions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), says Kelley Sayler, a fellow at the Center for New America Security.

The FAA, which requires that hobbyist drones must be in sight of the operator and must stay below 400 feet, offers broader latitude to businesses, allowing commercial drones to fly on an ad hoc basis.

For example, farms can use drones for "monitoring crops, and oil and gas companies can use to inspect infrastructure, and those could fall under the health or safety regulations the FAA uses," Ms. Sayler told the Monitor. She estimates the FAA has been issuing around 250 exemptions a month, and that number is growing – suggesting that the US market for Sony's product is only going to expand.

"The FAA has a fairly good handle on the policies it has in place now – if anything they are too restrictive and the regulations have not been able to keep pace" with emerging technologies, or with the "more lax" European guidelines, says Sayler.

That may soon change, as the FAA proposed sweeping reforms in February to open up the application process for businesses to operate drones. It estimates 7,000 businesses could apply for drone permits within three years.

Sony, which posted a loss in fiscal year 2015, announced plans in February to shed the audio and video segments of its business, and double down on flagging performances in mobile and gaming, both of which fall under the umbrella of its devices division.

This new drone venture appears to be an extension of Sony's new investment in devices. The project is drawing resources from the company’s smartphone segment, according to The Wall Street Journal. The head of Sony’s smartphone unit, Hiroki Totoki, told the Journal that "the key to driving growth in these areas will be adapting Sony’s innovation in various technologies," including the cameras and sensors that will equip the drones.

Sensors are already lucrative for Sony, as they are standard hardware in all of Apple Inc.’s iPhones and all of Samsung’s Galaxy devices.

Other Internet and tech companies are jockeying for a place in the emerging drone market. Yamaha is likely Sony's biggest current competitor, as it already uses drones for commercial purposes, primarily inspecting crops. Amazon.com and Google are planning to use drones for package delivery. 

In robot-friendly Japan, where Sony is based, drone technology has gained traction, but a safety event earlier this year gave the government pause. In April, a man was arrested after landing a drone containing trace amounts of radioactive material on the roof of the prime minister’s office. The country is now considering tighter regulation.

Sony and ZMP will each own about half of the drone company. A Sony spokesman said Aerosense would sell services using drones but not the drones themselves.

Aerosense is the latest effort by Sony to adapt to the entrepreneurial mindset of tech companies large and small, says Mr. Totoki, the smartphone unit chief. He told the Journal he wants to turn the smartphone group into a "launchpad" for business ideas. 

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