Editorials

Regulating the drone revolution

The discovery on April 22 of a drone on the roof of the prime minister’s official residence points to a lapse in security measures. Attached to it was a small container filled with radioactive earth and soil. If the radiation had been stronger, it could have posed a danger to people. The suspect who was subsequently arrested said the radioactive material was from Fukushima.

This incident took place at a time when the use of drones is rapidly growing. Apart from the need to beef up security measures at government buildings, the incident has underlined the need for the government, the public and lawmakers to discuss how to adequately regulate the use of drones while ensuring that their usefulness is not impaired.

Until recently, drones in Japan were mainly used for applications such as spreading agricultural chemicals, and currently about 2,500 drones for agricultural use are in operation. But in recent years the use of drones has been expanding and now they are being used to take photographs of places that people cannot easily access, such as natural disasters, and structures like bridges, gas and oil tanks and wind turbines.

The number of drones in Japan is rapidly increasing especially ones equipped with cameras. Drones can be bought online and in electronics shops. Models at the low end of the market are sold for under ¥10,000.

This situation is dubbed an “industrial revolution in the sky.” But depending on how it is used, a camera-equipped drone may violate people’s privacy rights.

The controls imposed by the Aviation Law on the flight of drones are quite lenient. One can freely fly drones outside air lanes used by aircraft if their altitude is less than 250 meters. To fly a drone to an altitude of more than 150 meters inside an air lane or to an altitude of more 250 meters in other areas, one is required to get permission from the government authorities. The Aviation Law imposes no other restrictions, raising fears that drones may interfere with the flights of other aircraft, causing near misses or even collisions.

Other countries are experiencing similar drone booms and associated problems. In the United States, a drone was crashed on the grounds of the White House. Yet some companies envision using drones to deliver goods to customers’ homes.

In Japan, the Ibaraki prefectural government has started using a camera-equipped drone to help deter the illegal dumping of industrial waste and other garbage.

The central government has designated the city of Senboku in Akita Prefecture as a special zone where the use of drones for public purposes will be promoted as part of its rural area revitalization program. It hopes to use drones to monitor volcanic activities and the movement of farm animals. Drones may also be used to deliver emergency goods to remote islands.

The use of drones by the police is also expanding. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department is developing a drone that can take images of natural disasters and crowded places and instantly transmit them to the MPD. Drones may also be pressed into service to bolster security at the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

The government, with the transport ministry taking a lead, has started discussions on regulations to control the use of drones. At the very least it needs to discuss such matters as the size and capabilities of drones and whether to introduce a system that requires people to register their drones or to obtain licenses to operate them. And, of course, the government will also need to discuss whether to prohibit the flight of drones over certain buildings and areas, such as government facilities and airports.

Another matter that should be discussed is how to prevent drones from being used in ways that intrude on people’s privacy. Establishing clear rules on the use of photographs or movies taken by drones may be necessary.

The government needs to strike an appropriate regulatory balance that doesn’t pose barriers to the use of drones for constructive purposes but prevents them from being used in ways that pose a danger to people or violate their privacy rights.

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