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Japan tightens rules on flying drones after security scares

The Japanese government banned drones from being flown near the Parliament building and the Prime Minister's Office, as recent incidents involving the unmanned aircraft have raised security concerns.

TOKYO: Japan's lower house approved new regulations for the operation of drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), prohibiting civilians from flying them above or around the heart of the political centre, the Imperial Palace and nuclear power plants.

According to the new law, areas of a 300-metre radius around the Prime Minister’s Office and the Japanese parliament building will be classified as off limits to all drone aircraft.

The opposition Democratic Party also insisted that the same no fly zone restriction be applied to the nation's nuclear power plants. Those who violate the law can be imprisoned for up to a year or fined up to US$4,100.

Experts also agree that a drone deregulation zone will help boost research and development.

“A place where people will not be present, a national forest and open the national forest to the private sector. We have been offered that kind of a place from Senboku City in Akita Prefecture, which is part of a package of a deregulation zone to test drones,” said Yutaka Fujiwara, Deputy Director-General, Office for the National Strategic Special Zones, Cabinet Office.

DRONES ARE POPULAR IN AGRICULTURAL SECTOR

Drones may have had some unwelcomed landings in Japan recently, but their vast potential has not gone unnoticed either.

Officially known as UAV, drones have been used in situations that require speed, flexibility and even daring. These include inspecting infrastructure, studying the state of active volcanoes, and monitoring the radiation levels of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

According to the Japanese Cabinet Office, however, it is in the agricultural sector that unmanned aerial vehicles have proven most popular.

Best known for its motorcycles, Yamaha is also Japan's biggest industrial manufacturer of drones, having taken off in 1988 at the behest of agriculture authorities.

The drone segment makes up just one per cent of its total business, but the company plans to expand this further. It has sold 2,400 units in more than 20 years.

“Agriculture is an area with a huge market overseas. So we are pressing to expand its use for agriculture abroad. We currently run this business in South Korea, Australia, and we want to go into the US, Thailand and Europe,” said Yamaha Motor Senior General Manager Osamu Ishioka.

INCIDENTS INVOLVING DRONES RAISE CONCERNS

Still, recent incidents involving UAVs have raised concerns in the country. In April, a drone containing a radioactive substance was found on the roof of the Prime Minister's Office.

In May, a teenager tried to fly a drone over the Diet building in Tokyo, where the parliament is housed. The same young man also flew a drone over a temple in Nagano before dropping it into the temple's crowded area. No one was injured but the flyer was arrested.

Such incidents have prompted the Government to tighten regulations for operating drone aircraft as the previous rules had been criticised for being unclear.

“With the rule in place, we can clear that rule, we can fly the objects. Then it will be good for us and for the sector as a whole," Mr Ishioka said.

While these plans remain in the wind, Japan has some catching up to do if it wants to be a contender in the soaring drone market.

According to the US-based non-profit Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International, the American drone sector alone is set to create more than 100,000 jobs and an economic impact worth US$80 billion in the next decade.