The government and the ruling coalition are moving quickly to regulate drones following the discovery of a small remote-controlled aerial vehicle on the roof of the prime minister’s office in late April. Some regulation is long overdue, given that there has been little in the way of legal control over their operation while their use has been rapidly expanding in the private, business and public spheres. But these regulatory moves need to be closely watched to make sure they don’t go too far and stifle the use of drones to fill unique needs.
A bill proposed by the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance that cleared the Lower House earlier this month would prohibit the flying of drones above and around the premises of key facilities, including the prime minister’s office, the Diet, the Imperial Palace and nuclear power plants.
A revision of the Aviation Law, submitted separately to the Diet by the government, would ban drones from areas around airports and above densely populated residential areas without government permission. It would also prohibit the operation of drones during nighttime hours and at events that attract large numbers of people, such as festivals and exhibitions, and ban their use for transporting explosives. Violators would face a fine of up to ¥500,000.
The government is also reportedly considering a mechanism to register drone owners and allocate an identification number to each vehicle, as well as a system requiring a license to fly a large drone, which can cause damage when they strike a person or a building, car or other object.
Currently, one is free to fly a drone anywhere outside established aircraft lanes as long as the altitude is kept to less than 250 meters. No-fly zones have so far not been established at key public facilities. It came as a security wake-up call when a small drone carrying a container filled with radioactive soil — reportedly a byproduct of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster — was found on the rooftop of the prime minister’s office, for which a man from Fukui Prefecture was arrested and charged. He said he did it to protest the Abe administration’s nuclear energy policy.
There also have been concerns that the use of drones to take aerial images with mounted cameras could violate people’s privacy.
Regulations to ensure the safety of drones and prevent their use for criminal purposes are both necessary and long overdue. At the same time, the government should carefully weigh the impact of the regulations so they won’t result in dampening the burgeoning use of the unmanned vehicles, whose use is expanding so rapidly and creating new demand and business opportunities that the situation is being termed an “industrial revolution in the sky.”
Drones come in a wide variety of types, including toy-like vehicles that can be bought at discount retail chains or on the Internet at low cost. Their uses similarly range from taking aerial videos to spraying agricultural chemicals — and the sheer fun of flying them. They are increasingly used to visually monitor and collect data in difficult-to-access places, such as disaster sites and high-rise structures.
The nation’s first major industry exhibition of drones, held in Chiba Prefecture in May, gathered roughly 50 Japanese and overseas firms. Major security service firm Secom Co. exhibited a model designed to track down suspicious intruders and take their image. There are high hopes for the use of drones to deliver goods, and the government is reportedly planning regulatory steps on such business. The U.S. Consumer Electronics Association estimates that the global commercial market for drones will grow to $1 billion by 2020, while research firms are forecasting that demand for drones for commercial and military purposes will exceed a combined $10 billion within 10 years.
The proposed legislation, which will likely be approved in the current Diet session, would put some brakes on the disorderly use of drones, and the government should make sure safety rules are well publicized among users. But government authorities should also ensure that these and other planned regulations don’t interfere with the expanding use of the still developing technology.