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NEC's passenger drone takes a short test flight in Japan

But don't expect to hitch a ride in the machine for several years.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Japan is eager to become a leader in the passenger drone industry. NEC Corp nudged the nation a step closer to that goal Monday with a demo of a people-carrying quadcopter, which stayed in the air for about a minute. The company operated the flight inside a safety cage at a test facility in Abiko, a Tokyo suburb.

The battery-powered drone didn't actually have a passenger inside as it rose to a height of about 10 feet for a few moments before returning to the ground. It was the first demo of such a vehicle by a major Japanese corporation, according to Bloomberg. Its partner Cartivator aims to start mass production in 2026.

"Japan is a densely populated country and that means flying cars could greatly alleviate the burden on road traffic," Kouji Okada, who is among the project leads at NEC, told Bloomberg. "We are positioning ourselves as an enabler for air mobility, providing location data and building communications infrastructure for flying cars."

Under Japan's infrastructure plan, deliveries made by such drones are scheduled to start by 2023 or so. The government hopes to allow people to travel in the machines in the following decade. Venture capitalists in Japan meanwhile are investing in autonomous aircraft companies through their Drone Fund.

There's a long way to go to reach those goals though, with battery life, regulatory and safety hurdles to overcome. NEC's machine weighs about 150 kilograms, and is around 3.9 meters long, 3.7 meters wide and 1.3 meters tall. Add some bodies and that's a considerable mass to keep in the air safely for any length of time.

NEC isn't the only ones building autonomous flying vehicles, of course. The United Arab Emirates, New Zealand and Singapore are hoping to make waves in the industry, while private companies like Uber, Volvo's parent company and Google co-founder Larry Page's Kitty Hawk are working on such machines too.

However, NEC and Cartivator might hold an advantage over rival businesses, thanks to the Japan government's support. Cartivator already has a permit for outdoor flights.

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