New regulations on the flights of drones and other unmanned aircraft will take effect on Thursday, despite concerns over the impact on hobbyists and fears that restrictions may hamper innovation in the emerging sector.
Changes to the Civil Aeronautics Law, passed by the Diet in September, will ban flights of drones weighing 200 grams or more in crowded residential areas, at altitudes 150 meters or more above the ground, and near airports. The transport ministry can grant operators exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
The designation “crowded residential areas” covers large swaths of areas in major cities, including all of Tokyo’s 23 wards. This means operators will be severely restricted from flying drones and even toy aircraft in such areas.
The restrictions also require operators to keep their craft at least 30 meters from people, buildings and cars, and bans them from locations where large crowds are present, such as at festivals and exhibitions.
Violators may be punished with a fine of up to ¥500,000.
The law will permit the use of drones for emergency purposes, such as manhunts and the search of land by ambulance staff and the Self-Defense Forces.
A separate bill to ban the devices from being flown over designated facilities, such as the prime minister’s office, the Diet building, the Imperial Palace and nuclear power plants, passed the Lower House on July 9, but is now awaiting approval in the Upper House.
The government moved to regulate drone flights after a drone carrying a small amount of radioactive material was found on the roof of the prime minister’s office in April.
The man who operated the drone was arrested on suspicion of forcible obstruction of business and interfering with the operations of the prime minister’s office.
The government meanwhile is working out more detailed rules to promote the industrial use of drones, with plans to expand their applications in pesticide spraying and the inspection of civil engineering projects. A panel made up of public and private-sector officials will release recommendations in the summer.
Masahiro Kobayashi, an Osaka-based lawyer who specializes in drones and robotics, said some of the new rules are welcome, as the biggest fear raised by experts so far has been the possibility of unmanned aircraft coming too close to commercial airplanes.
But he said it is “too severe” to regulate drones and even toy devices as light as 200 grams and to ban their use in most urban areas. He said the restrictions will hinder the promotion of drone-related industries in the future, he said.
“The biggest impact will be felt by hobbyists, because they will have to obtain approval from the government more than 15 days before the planned flights,” he said.
The law says requests for approval must be sent by postal mail to the ministry 10 working days beforehand, which in practice means up to 15 calendar days in advance.
“Children and adolescents will no longer be given the option to say, ‘Let’s fly a toy drone next Sunday because the weather looks good.’ Adults with cars can drive to the countryside and fly drones in nonrestricted areas. But children will not have that option.”
Kobayashi added that nurturing young talent in the sector is key for Japan to explore a wider use of drones in the future, such as their use as delivery vehicles.
To that end, he said, the government should set up special zones where drone flights are permitted without restrictions.
He added, it should also sponsor public events, taking a cue from how the U.S. Defense Advance Research Projects Agency sponsors DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition for autonomous vehicles.