Police in Japan used this drone to watch the Tokyo Marathon


Hoisted like a kite some distance from the finish line, a Massachusetts-made drone kept watch over runners at the Tokyo Marathon in Japan last weekend.

The “PARC” drone, made by Danvers startup CyPhy Works, streamed a live video feed of the finish line to the officers of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department on site and to anybody who tuned in on YouTube.

The event was only the second time CyPhy’s crafts appeared at such an event — at the last race it recorded all the other contestants were also robots — and a rare public demonstration of how the company’s technology could one day be put to use.

“We had a really great view of the crowd around the finish line,” said Helen Greiner, the founder of CyPhy Works, who watched the race online.

Most drone models that you can buy commercially are limited by a short battery life, often under an hour. They’re also notoriously unstable — one drone recording a slalom race in Italy late last year crashed onto the slope, missing a skier by inches.

CyPhy says its models are built for durability and long-term use. They are designed to survive weather events like strong winds, and are tethered to the ground by a thin wire that provides power and a communications link. The company won’t say who its customers are, but it is being tested for a number of applications, from agricultural to military uses. The cameras on the drone can spot a person at a range of three miles.

“Tokyo police were really looking at the event as the staging ground for the Olympics in 2020,” said Greiner, who founded Roomba-maker iRobot and led that company as president and chairman before leaving to start CyPhy Works. “They’re really investigating new compelling technologies.”

But it may be a while before drones are hovering above local races. At the 2015 Boston Marathon, the Boston Police Department announced that drones flown by spectators were not permitted, and it hired a company called DroneShield to stand watch in case any cropped up, ready to take them down with nets.

Law enforcement groups and companies need a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration before they are able to use drones.

But before it gets to that, the police and community must come to agreement on the use of this technology, said Ed Davis, former commissioner of the Boston Police Department and founder of a security consulting firm.

“People have very strong feelings about surveillance and privacy and everything a police department does. They need to have the law behind them, but they also need to have community support,” Davis said.

Existing technology — fixed cameras and a video feed from a State Police helicopter — provide some of the same surveillance that a drone could offer, he said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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