In 1983, Yamaha Motor Company received a request to develop an unmanned helicopter for crop dusting purposes from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery of Japan.That began initial research and development efforts that led to the completion of the Industrial-use Unmanned Helicopter “R-50” in 1987. Whilst research and development efforts in the field of industrial-use unmanned helicopters was being carried out around the world, the Yamaha R-50 with its payload of 20 kg was the first practical-use unmanned helicopter for crop dusting.
When the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery officially announced a policy of promoting the use of unmanned helicopters in crop dusting for rice farming in 1991, Yamaha initiated plans for full-fledged marketing of the R-50. Industrial-use unmanned helicopters are now recognised to offer solutions to several of the problems confronted by Japanese agriculture today, such as the overall ageing of the farmer population and the lack of younger generation heirs to continue farming, the problem of restrictions on pest-control crop dusting by air-plane due to the increasing occupational diversity and the spread of residential areas in agricultural areas and the depressed cost of agricultural products. At the same time, the use of unmanned helicopters has spread to other crops besides rice.
Meanwhile, local and national competitions sprung up, where operators could showcase their skills and accuracy. The release of YACS (Yamaha Attitude Control System) in March of 1995 made learning control of industrial-use unmanned helicopters, which until then had been considered quite difficult, a much easier process. As a result, it became possible for most people become proficient at crop dusting after just a short period of training, thus making the benefits accessible to many more users. In October of 1997, Yamaha released its new RMAX industrial-use unmanned helicopter, which featured greater payload capacity and greater ease of operation.
Today there are around 2,400 RMAX helicopters flying in Japan, representing a 77% market share. And, the number of people capable of operating them has grown to about 7,500 nationwide. Sky operations also run across North America and Australasia where RMAXs are utilised in many scenarios from Search and Rescue to agricultural spraying to reduce danger to personal in hazardous areas and increase crop chemical application efficiency. From 2001, the total area of farmland being sprayed by RMAX unmanned helicopters reached 310,000 hectares and they are receiving increasing attention among from many agriculture areas for tasks including planting, weed management, fertilising and pest control.
Today, these industrial-use unmanned helicopters are expanding beyond agriculture. The exciting possibility of unmanned autonomous flight has led to research projects in countries around the world aimed and the development of autonomous flight systems for unmanned helicopters using GPS. Amidst this trend, the use of a Yamaha RMAX equipped with a GPS autonomous flight system in April of 2000 for observation over the erupting volcano Mt. Usu in Hokkaido was the first case in the world of successful helicopter operation out of the range of sight by means of a GPS autonomous flight system.